The Flamethrowers

Rachel Kushner

The Flamethrowers
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The Flamethrowers

Rachel Kushner

Reno mounts her motorcycle and sets a collision course for New York. In 1977 the city is alive with art, sensuality and danger. She falls in with a bohemian clique colonising downtown and the lines between reality and performance begin to bleed. A passionate affair with the scion of an Italian tyre empire carries Reno to Milan, where she is swept along by the radical left and drawn into a spiral of violence and betrayal.

The Flamethrowers is an audacious novel that explores the perplexing allure of femininity, fakery and fear. In Reno we encounter a heroine like no other.

Review

It’s possible that, in another life, I lived in New York, rode a motorcycle and was in love with an Italian artist. This would certainly explain why I find myself captivated by Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers – her second and much-lauded novel.

The Flamethrowers is set in the mid-70s, and the novel’s narrator, nicknamed Reno (it’s where she’s from) is a young woman obsessed with speed, motorcycles and, to a lesser degree, art. We first encounter Reno setting records at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This racing turns out to be a catalyst for her art; she wants to photograph the traces her bike leaves in the earth. A year later, she arrives in New York, where she falls in with a rather outrageous group of artists, and finds herself girlfriend to Sandro Valera, an estranged scion of the Moto Valera motorcycle and tyre empire. As it happens, it’s a Moto Valera that Reno rides and this convenient coincidence helps to set up the story’s darker subplot.

Later, after Sandro abandons her in Rome, Reno finds herself in the midst of a violent demonstration led by Italian radicals. She falls in with the welcoming group of militants, and it is at this point that the simmering political menace of the novel finally goes up in flames.

Reno’s story is cleverly entwined with nominal doses of history, from the radical New York artistic scene of the 70s to the Red Brigades and proto-fascists of Italy, and the riots that ensued.

Kushner’s narrative stays brilliantly alive despite a less than electric denouement. Her prose is sharp and her characters are sublimely real, complemented by vivacious dialogue. This is a story of losing one’s innocence and finding one’s place in the complex social and political contexts of the time.


Nicole Mansour is the Assistant Manager of Readings St Kilda.

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