Wednesday, September 11, 2013


by Rachel Kushner

            It can be daunting reviewing a book by an author who has been called “[o]ne of the most brilliant writers of the new century” and who has received praise from the likes of Jonathan Franzen. Rachel Kushner was nominated for a National Book Award for her first book, Telex From Cuba. The Flamethrowers is Kushner’s second novel.

            We never learn the name of Kushner’s protagonist. The young woman from Reno, Nevada is only referred to as ‘Reno”. She moves to New York City to join the art world. Reno’s art is tied to her interest in motorcycle racing, and her favorite bike is a Valera motorcycle.

            The Flamethrowers details the many characters and experiences that Reno meets and has while part of the New York art scene. She begins a relationship with an artist, Sandro Valera.Valera’s Italian family makes the motorcycles that Reno prefers, but he has turned his back on his family. Later in the book, she and Sandro visit his family in Italy; Reno ends up in Rome in the midst of the 1977 radical rebellion.

            The Flamethrowers skips around quite a bit – both in place and in time. As I began reading the book, it seemed to drag, and I felt a bit bewildered. As it began to come together, however, both the pace and my interest picked up.

            The characters in The Flamethrowers are well developed; although they are not always sympathetic characters, they do have depth.

Kushner’s writing is very good. At times, her writing is ironic, as well as iconic – for example, when Reno tells about a man she met at a bar:  

Later we danced. My arms were around his neck, his Marsden Hartley T-shirt clinging to his broad shoulders in the heat and sweat of the bar. I had not kissed him but knew I would, and he knew that I knew, and there was a kind of mutual joy in this slide into inevitability, never mind that I didn’t know his name or if anything he said was true.

            “You’re pretty,” he said, brushing my hair away from my face.
            How did you find people in New York City? I hadn’t known this would be how.
            “They could put your face on cake boxes,” he said.
            I smiled.
            “Until you show that gap between your teeth. Jesus. It sort of ruins your cake box appeal. But actually, it enhances a different sort of appeal.” (p. 66).

Kushner’s writing, at times, can even be said to be seductive.

            Reno and her friends like speed; they like to push the limits. Each, in his or her own way, is on the offense. Ancient yet modern. It is not always pretty, but it can always be lethal.

Who are the flamethrowers? I do not know Kushner’s answer to that question. But, even though Sandro’s father tells him that he, Sandro, doesn’t want to be one, in my opinion, he and Kushner’s other characters are the flamethrowers.

            I may have had some trouble getting into this book. But worse, despite finishing it, I’m having trouble getting out of it.

Highly Recommended.

The copy of The Flamethrowers that I reviewed is an Advance Reader’s Edition provided for my honest and independent review.

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