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.
In common with Colum McCann’s recent novel Transatlantic, the finest writing in The Flamethrowers comes at the beginning. Reno’s thoughts as she rides her high- powered bike immediately beguile. Kushner understands speed and, more importantly, the physicality of riding a motorcycle. “I was going one hundred miles an hour now, trying to steer properly from my hunched position, as insects ticked and thumped and splatted against the windscreen. It was suicide to let the mind drift. I’d promised myself not to do it.” Elsewhere she recalls: “My hands had reduced themselves to two functions, throttle and brake. I tried to lift money and my license from my billfold, but my still-numb fingers refused to perform this basic action.” There is also the random beauty of her consciousness: “Night fell in an instant. I rode on, as darkness changed the desert. It was more porous and vast now, even as my vision was limited to one tractor beam fanning thinly on the road in front of me. The enormity of the dark was cut rarely and by a weak fluorescence, one or two gas stations.”
There’s no denying that Reno, young and susceptible, a doomed romantic, thinks like a novelist. Even while stopped at a gas station she observes a passing spat between a bickering couple. She looks and considers but, at least for most of the period covered by the book, understands very little. But that is not a fault; she is convincingly human in a way The Flamethrowers is not. Few humans could grasp much of the behaviour that passes for social interaction in the narrative. It is calculating and the characters are hardened; sex is a very nasty game.
For all the sharpness of the characters, there is little humour aside from one very funny anecdote. Central to Reno’s motivation in moving to New York is the presence there of a former fellow student from her art school. She describes his efforts to make a documentary about the singer Nina Simone. The student had tracked Simone down to her farmhouse in the south of France. The singer, dressed in a bathrobe, saw his camera and pulled a gun from her pocket and shot him. Reno thinks this is most impressive and believes “it elevated what he did from a student project to actual art.”
Meanwhile, running parallel with Reno’s story is a flashback, secondary narrative fleshing out the story of an Italian motorcycle manufacturing clan. The business was begun as a gesture of sorts to a failed romantic vision. This is later drawn into Reno’s story through a link so coincidental that it threatens the plausibility of the plot. Still, Kushner is a risk taker and is confident in the strength of her busy prose, which swells with a daunting bravado. Reno does not so much become involved with an older artist, Sandro – coincidently, a member of that now famously rich Italian motorcycle manufacturing clan – as she is selected by him.
There are several moments of cinematic drama. In the chilling opening sentence, a man, Valera, soon to become the presiding presence in a novel of emphatic characters, cuts the wires of a dead comrade’s motorbike headlamp. Within minutes he has killed an enemy with the same lamp. Much later in the novel, the night on which he greeted the wife who had waited for his return by advising her to take a lover is recalled by his son. That same son, now middle-aged, shoots a young male mugger in the hand in a New York street.
Kushner positions her characters in crisis. They share a need to hurt and a desire to be humiliated. The arts scene is exposed as bloody and self-serving and apparently devoid of art.
There are false notes: Kushner does not appear to be interested in art. Reno, the innocent, turns out also to have been a top-class competition skier and to have spent a year in Florence, which she belatedly mentions, and she speaks sufficient Italian to know she is being insulted by her much older and cynical boyfriend’s bitter mother. So much experience, and Reno is only 23.
This is an action movie of a novel that ebbs and flows. So much happens; too much happens: the ideas collide and compete for attention. Yet even when it seems time to plead “Enough!”, Reno doesn’t lose the reader.
However tough this biker girl-cum-skier, wannabe artist, wearing her heart, if not her art, on her sleeve, seems, her vulnerability proves to be the real strength of a book that is good, occasionally visually exciting, if never quite the sum of its very many parts.
Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent