Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is a big, sprawling beast of a novel, one of the most critically lauded books in years and one I was incredibly excited about reading.
The story is told largely from the perspective of a character that is nicknamed Reno because of the place where she comes from, and she sets of on her motorbike to make a name for herself in New York. When she arrives she falls in with the downtown artists and with Sandro Valera, who comes from a family of great power and wealth from ownership of a tyre company in Italy, a world he has rejected to become an artist in America.
Early on Reno outlines that two things she loves are drawing and speed, and how she felt that ski racing was a great combination of these things. She sets off to document land speed racing and the accounts of this and her time among fellow motorcyclists are drawn with great vividness.
Kushner also draws us superbly into the art world, a world with people talking at great length to explain what they were attempting to create and we meet people like Ronnie and Giddle, folk that are sometimes economical with the truth but full of entertaining tales. When Ronnie comes into some money he spends a chunk of it on buying piles of the same clothes so he can avoid doing laundry.
All of this is played out against the background of a certain degree of unrest with the promise of a potential waking up of the citizens from Burdmoore, a member of a group called the Motherfuckers. None of this is particularly on the agenda at this time in New York but things are certainly a lot hotter in Italy when Sandro and Reno head out there.
The world Reno experiences in Italy is a vastly different one. Instead of the bohemian lifestyle they’ve been used to, Reno finds herself in a place where they’re waited on hand and foot by servants in the Valero household. The Valeros are certainlly not a popular among the people in Italy, with their vast wealth and their poor treatment of workers. While they’re living the high life, The Movement is rising up and people are taking what they want, when they want, feeling that it’s all that they deserve.
Kushner has created a world with many cultural and historical references but it never feels bogged down with the narrative zipping along at a fair pace. It’s a mighty piece of work and establishes her as a huge voice in American literature.