The Flamethrowers

flamethrowersThe Flamethrowers
by Rachel Kushner
2013/400 pages
Rating  10 /contemp fiction
(notes /spoilers —–>)

Oh my what an excellent book!  I was not prepared at all for this from a woman author – (shame on me).   What I mean is that it’s a very strongly written book –  along the lines of Don Delillo but with strong undertones of Patti Smith’s Just Kids.  It seems the themes are more cognitive than emotional and the plot has to do with machines and speed as well as love.   That said,  I think *perhaps* only a woman could have written it as there are bits about modeling from the model’s perspective and there seems to be a very feminist tone in places.

While the basic plot line stretches from the battles of WWI Italy to the Salt Flats of Nevada and the rubber plantations of Brazil,  as well as a brief stay in  the south Pacific,  and the street riots and strikes in Italy of

Chelsea Hotel

Chelsea Hotel

the 1970s,  the story is basically one of the New York art community circa 1971-72.  The characters cross all economic boundaries from top  capitalist money to lowest street punk poor.  Kushner is using a wide-angle lens here.

I suppose the main theme here has to do with identity – h0w much of you is inescapably you,  and how is performance.   Where did you pick up the performance?  How much of you is due to family and how much to time, place, era,  job or other choices –  how much choice do you have?   Along with this comes the ideas of speed and time and art and the place of women in men’s lives.

Reno (with no last name) , a young artist fresh out of the Uni of Nevada,  Reno,  creates earthwork art and rides motorcycles as well as skis.  She and ducati-gt750-1971her “borrowed” movie camera relocate to New York City to find a place in the art world – and love if it happens on her doorstep.   Before long she finds herself back out in Nevada racing and photographing and then having a crash.   So she’s back in New York.  And then in Italy.   In alternating chapters,  the Valera family has seen WWI and  created a huge motorcycle company.  And within the chapters are backstories about how this person or that one got to the current situation.  Kushner is a marvelous story-teller.

Sondro Valera,  Reno’s boyfriend,  turns out to be the middle-aged second son of that motorcycle corporation and very involved with the art scene.  He’s trying to lose his family and their money.   Ronnie Fontaine,   Sondro’s best friend,  is Reno’s introduction to Sondro and that world where she becomes a kind of hanger-on.


Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson from atop Rozel Point, in mid-April 2005

Reno also meets a waitress named Giddle who, with her slim background in the arts via Andy Warhol,   pretty much introduces Reno to the idea of performance living.

The main characters and their lives are Kushner’s inventions,  but a whole lot of the folks mentioned or with cameo appearances are based on historical record.  And there were some very quirky characters around New York in the 1970s.

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. A Winnebago towing a Volkswagen Beetle was in the left lane. The Winnebago must have been going forty miles an hour: it seemed to stand still on the road. We were in separate realities, fast and slow. There is no fixed reality, only objects in contrast. Even the Earth is moving.  (Kindle locations 198-202.)


You have time.  Meaning don’t use it, but pass through time in patience, waiting for something to come. Prepare for its arrival. Don’t rush to meet it. Be a conduit. I believed him. I felt this to be true. Some people might consider that passivity but I did not. I considered it living. (Kindle location 481-483)

As well as: 

Making art was really about the problem of the soul, of losing it. It was a technique for inhabiting the world. For not dissolving into it.   (Kindle location 5576)

Also there are, appropriately,  some black and white photographs in the book rather representative of the photos Reno takes,  I guess.   The structure and characters and plot and themes all go  back and forth between the Valero family and Reno’s life,   time,  space,  art,  freedom,  and at one point taking a detour for Ronnie’s tale,  but coming to a totally satisfying conclusion.

The Paris Review –  Winter 2012
an article by Kushner

An interview with Kushner at the New Yorker: 


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