The Flamethrowers

She wasn’t shopping for experience. She was trying to survive. I was the one shopping for experience.

I read Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers on the basis of James Wood’s rave review in the New Yorker. Other reviewers have been equally praiseworthy; the novel has been on the short list for several prizes.

Yes, on occasion I thought the novel was magical. Yet at other times I got lost in one of the several stories Kushner tells. It is clear she likes crafting them. No matter how many, most are vivid, informed and sometimes perceptive. And the novel skips around between them.

It opens with one about motorcycle racing, more generally the meaning of speed, going fast, breaking records. The heroine, Reno (where she was born), is driving her Moto Valera motorcycle across the great Nevada desert to enter a speed racing event on the Utah Salt Flats.

Nevada was a tone, a light, a deadness that was part of me…the high desert gleamed under the morning sun. White, sand, rose, and mauve—those were the colors here…pure white stretching so far into the distance that its horizon revealed a faint curve of the Earth. I heard the sonic rip of a military jet…but saw only blue above, a raw and saturated blue…

We are taken to the art world in New York during the 1970s, then to an upper class villa in Bellagio on Lake Como in Italy, the family home of her lover, Sandro Valera, the scion of a wealthy family, whose wealth was made on the rubber plantations in Brazil.

They also made motorcycles, the kind Kushner rides on the Utah salt flats and in New York. We shift to Rome, where Reno falls in with a group of radicals during the years of the Red Brigades and then back to the downtown art scene in New York.

Lorzi said the only thing worth loving was what was to come, and since what was to come was unforeseeable—only a cretin or a liar would try to predict the future—the future had to be lived now, in the now, as intensity.

The book finally came alive for me when Reno and Sandro spend two tedious weeks at his family villa high in the hills above Lake Como.

The villa was at the top of a steep incline, just a fifteen-minute drive from the lakeside promenade of Bellagio proper with its double-parked Lamborghinis and its women in furs. Its regal-looking car ferries, which arrived from Varenna, across the sparkling water. And along the waterfront, its white tablecloths, cold prosecco, rich and subdued families gazing off. But in that fifteen minutes traveling uphill from the lakefront to the Villa Valera, one left that world behind, passed horses and cows grazing lazily, handwritten signs advertising farm made honey and yogurt, and roads choked with blackberry and young chestnut trees.

In spite of its beauty, Reno found it an alien place, the way his mother treated her, like one of the servants from the wrong class, not at all befitting her son. “All this beauty led me back to a sense of cruelty, to the people kept out, and those kept in, in the kitchen, the washing shed, the servants’ little stone cottages.”

In an interview about her novel, Kushner commented: All these things I was interested in—motorcycles, art, revolution and radical politics—don’t seem connected, yet I thought they could become so, in the space of a novel, [and like all her risky interests], there had to be the real possibility that the novel could be a disaster.

On balance, I didn’t think it was a disaster, although at times, it gets a bit confusing. But The Flamethrowers never loses its vitality, its bizarre characters, or vibrant sentences.