Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

An innocent races through the Seventies

Wow. I guess this is what is meant by a tour de force.  The Flamethrowers was very good.   "Reno," the young narrator, likes motorcycles, skiing, making art of lines, making art of her life. She works as a “China girl” at a film store, her anonymous image used as a test of Caucasian skin tones. After moving to New York, lonely "Reno" is spotted by Sandro, an older Italian artist, heir to a rubber and motorcycle fortune, who selects her to be his lover. Through Sandro, she is introduced to the heart of the art world, first class motorcycle racing, and excellent hand jobs. When she accompanies a reluctant Sandro back to Italy, back to the family estate, she meets his dreadful mother and brother and witnesses the labor unrest of Italy of the Seventies. Later, “Reno” gets involved in shady violent anti-capitalist actions. She returns to New York, older and wiser.

The Flamethrowers is, among other things, a novel of ideas. The main one being: Rubber + sweat = tires; Tires + war = money; money + leisure = art. Secondly, it is a historical fiction, recreating a time and place filled with fully imagined eccentric characters. And finally, the book is a demonstration of bravura writing. The novel is filled with brilliantly executed set pieces. The races at Bonneville, the numerous bar scenes with the voluble artists and their illuminating stories, the riot in Rome. I kept having to stop and reread passages.  Also, I enjoyed the thoughtful architectural use of imagery. Images are repeated throughout the book – flamethrowers, motorcycles, a hat. A snow covered mountain. A snow covered mountain at night. One of the themes is women trying to figure out men, figure out the world. In this story, all the characters tell stories. Very entertaining pretty much unbelievable stories.

One quibble: The plot requires that “Reno” understand Italian and I didn’t buy that this working class girl spent junior year abroad in Firenze. But it took me quite a while to come up with that.  Overall, a really stellar novel.

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