Written by Rachel Kushner
Scribner, April 2013; 400 pages
The year is 1977 and Reno—so-called because of the place of her birth—has come to New York intent on turning her fascination with motorcycles and speed into art. Her arrival coincides with an explosion of activity in the art world—artists have colonized a deserted and industrial SoHo, are squatting in the East Village, and are blurring the line between life and art. Reno meets a group of dreamers and raconteurs who submit her to a sentimental education of sorts. She begins an affair with an artist named Sandro Valera, the semi-estranged scion of an Italian tire and motorcycle empire. When they visit Sandro’s family home in Italy, Reno falls in with members of the radical movement that overtook Italy in the seventies. Betrayal sends her reeling into a clandestine undertow.
The Flamethrowers is a fearless novel, an intensely engaging exploration of the mystique of the feminine, the fake, the terrorist. In the center of it all is Kushner’s brilliantly realized protagonist, a young woman on the verge.
First, I want to say I'm very grateful to Scribner's for sending me an advance copy of this book and introducing me to Rachel Kushner's work. She's an excellent writer, and I did enjoy the first fifty (or so) pages of the book. After that, though, my interest level dropped enormously and I almost abandoned it midway through. It was all just taking too long.
As I said, Rachel Kushner is good at her craft. Indeed, there's an awful lot of very fine writing in The Flamethrowers. But it never seems to get anywhere. I found the two major storylines -- Reno's and that of the Valera family -- scattered and hard to follow. Well, not exactly hard to follow; just not compelling enough to keep my attention for very long. It's true that the book explores many aspects of the period -- feminism, art, the "counterculture," terrorism, and more; but all that exploration never really comes together to form any sort of cohesive whole. After a while, it began to seem like a set of very elaborate notes for a book -- there's a novel in there somewhere, if someone could just put it all together.
I did enjoy the brief narrative about Reno's early months in New York City; Kushner does a very good job of portraying the art scene and the general craziness of the period. But once she left that time and place, the book began to drag: the speed trials and all the talk about motorcycles and their history just didn't hold my interest. And the story about the Valera family is so rambling and scattered that I simply couldn't maintain any enthusiasm for it.
I think, for me, the book's major problem was the main character. I just never could bond with Reno, or understand what made her tick. She seems so oddly disengaged from everything around her, never really in control of any of her actions. She does seem to be hovering "on the verge" as the book's blurb says -- but never becomes a fully formed character.
But even though I wasn't able to connect with her work this time, Kushner is an author I want to keep an eye on. The Flamethrowers probably isn't a book for all readers; but if you decide to take it on, you'll need a lot of real dedication.
Note: This review refers to an advance reader's edition of the book that I received free of charge from the publisher, through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. No other compensation was received.