BY LARA BUXBAUM
I doubt anyone could read the first two chapters of Rachel Kushner’s National Book Award-nominated The Flamethrowers and not be entirely seduced; it’s all but impossible to put aside the novel after this incendiary beginning.
The Flamethrowers centres on the experiences of Reno who moves to New York from Nevada in the mid 1970s to pursue her dreams of becoming an artist. A thousand New York stories might begin that way and yet Kushner has written a unique novel whose motorbike-riding protagonist, the “world’s fastest woman” who “trusted the need for risk, the importance of honouring it”, discourages easy comparisons.
Reno is open to adventure, ready to be enchanted and refreshingly immune to irony and artifice. An art-world neophyte, she becomes entangled in the gallery-hopping life of Sandro Valera, a minimalist who creates aluminium boxes. Her lover is also a reluctant scion of the Moto Valera motorcycle and tyre empire in Italy and the rise of this empire forms a parallel narrative.
Reno’s only friend is a waitress, Giddle, who turned down a role in an Andy Warhol film and believes “life was the thing to treat as art”. The manner in which life is filtered, re-interpreted or illuminated through art is a key theme. Reno recalls her mother who travelled the country on Greyhound buses for no apparent reason, but any filmic echoes are dashed: “If her past included something akin to noir, it was only the gritty part, the part about being female, poor and alone, which in a film was enough of a circumstance to bring in the intrigue, but in her life attracted only my father. He left when I was three.”
Flamethrowers is a bold, encyclopaedic novel which traverses continents. It is concerned with intimacy, performance, freedom and encompasses anarchic protest, utopian manifestos, workers’ rights, capitalist exploitation and wild drunken nights. Kushner’s second novel should be celebrated for capturing youthful intensity and revealing the brutality behind the dream of speed.
Kushner weaves fictional narratives into historical events in this love letter to the lower east side of New York City and its denizens. This is New York before gentrification and hipsters, when animal blood still ran on the streets of the meatpacking district, but it is also a city which resists romanticizing or blind nostalgia.
There are lulls in the narrative, at times interminable dinner table conversations, pages which smoulder rather than sizzle, but Kushner’s writing is irresistible, and one is willing to overlook and forgive these slumps in the face of dazzling descriptions and brilliant set pieces.
There are no neat conclusions in this artistic coming-of-age novel but, as Reno suggests, “There needn’t be an answer. There need only be the story itself archived in the asking.”