The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner
Reviewed by Eileen Battersby
‘I owned a motorcycle. I rode it all over town. It wasn’t just transportation, it was an experience. I was a girl on a motorcycle.”
Reno is young and intent on becoming an artist of some kind. All she has is ambition and energy and a vague belief that her camera may capture something worthwhile, even eloquent. She trusts in people and is continually betrayed. But the one thing that Rachel Kushner achieves throughout this loud, aggressive, coming-to-awareness novel is that the reader never loses faith in Reno. As a narrator, Reno is to be trusted; she watches everything, is even told that she looks like a cat staring at mice, and continually misreads the signs. In that she is human. In a novel that could have been too brash, too knowing, and that is heaving with observation and detail, a vast swarm of activity, Reno is the constant. She is disappointed and wounded, but she never stops hoping, and she is always real.
The Flamethrowers comes with its own set of fireworks in the shape of sprawling set pieces, art-scene rivalries, tension, extremists and a wealthy family’s messy history. It is exactly the second novel that Rachel Kushner, who emerged with Telex from Cuba, which was shortlisted for the 2008 National Book Award and won several other prizes, was expected to write. That said, it is impressive but relentless. The only lulls are when Reno pauses for breath, usually while absorbing the latest emotional jab delivered to her by people who have no feelings.
The most calming moments in the entire narrative, which races along on a sea of description, sensation and talk – not that her characters converse with each other: they tend to make speeches – are the motorcycle sequences. In that it is reminiscent of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland (2009), which soars highest in its cricket interludes.
Reno’s story takes place during the 1970s, when she arrives in New York. Back home in Nevada she was a tomboy, hanging out with her cousins, Scott and Andy. She and her mother lived with Reno’s Uncle Bobby, and home was a garage full of oil and parts.
Reno’s thoughts are rich and heavy with memory. When we first meet her, on her way across the US to ride in a speed race on Utah’s salt flats, with her plan to make land art, it is obvious that her loneliness and a craving to belong are the themes of the novel. Kushner may seem the most unlikely writer to have created a present-day Isabel Archer, yet in eager, loving, vulnerable and deadly earnest Reno she has presented a most moving study of an emotional innocent abroad.