The Flamethrowers (notes)

flamethrowersThe Flamethrowers
by Rachel Kushner
2013/400 pages
Rating  10 /contemp fiction

The opening chapter finds us reading about two motorcyclists,  one Italian by the name of Valera and one anonymous German,  in WWI Italy.  They fight to the death and Valera scavenges for a headlamp.   In the next chapter a woman film-maker named  Reno, who dearly loves art and speed, is telling us in 1st person how she is riding cross country on her  motorcycle – a brand new 1977 (it’s late 1976)  Moto Valera.  In Chapter 3 we find that her motorcycle was made by the company Valera in  Chapter 1  went on to create.   I sense that this book will be about taking risks.

And the chapters alternate between Valera the engineer in the early to mid 20th century,  and Reno in the 21st.

Chapter 4 backtracks a bit over a year,  to when Reno, named for the city of her birth,  first moved from Nevada, fresh out of the Uni at Reno,  to the  SoHo district of New York to study art – especially photography and film.  She has a Bolex movie camera she has “borrowed” from UNR and apparently a bit of money – not much.

The names of real artists  are scattered through the narrative –  Robert Smithson is a noted “land artist” who created a piece called Spiral Jetty in Utah – it’s made from  mud (see left).    There are others –  Andy Warhol,  Gordon Mata-Clark  and more.

In this flashback of New York life,  Reno meets a group of people who do a bit of bar-hopping and end up at the now famous  Chelsea Hotel for a little gun-play. And there are strange limos taking off at all times from the “Mafia clubhouse”  beneath Reno’s apartment.  Except for one friend,  Giddle,  a rather interesting waitress at a local diner,  Reno is alone in New York.

And then the narrative switches back to war-time Italy where Vallera and his  buddy Lonzo, who is also rich,  live only for speed, the future and machines.   Their “little gang” is also involved in the experimental arts.  They join the Arditi, the elite storm troops of Italy.  Vallera is vitally interested in speed and design.

There are photos in this book!  –  first photo is at the end of chapter 5 and of a young woman looking out a window – probably in Italy.  There had been some discussion of making a tiny portable metal woman for the troops to take with them.

So Reno gets a job with a film studio which makes ads – she models.   At this point I am strongly reminded of Don Delillo’s thematic fascination with photography and film.  But here we the perspective of a photographer  and model take on it,  not a viewer.  And Giddle tells Reno that her job is really a performance – she was living inside a film – but then she became the part.  Not too cool.  This is fascinating.

There are some funny lines:
Giddle has just returned from an interview at a mortuary.   Reno asks her how it was:

“Difficult to even talk about,” she said. “I feel changed. Like, say my mind is a sweater. And a loose thread gets tugged at, pulled and pulled until the sweater unravels and there’s only a big fluffy pile of yarn. You can make something with it, that pile of yarn, but it will never be a sweater again. That’s the state of things.”   (Kindle Locations 1388-1391)

And now there’s another theme coming up.   Identity, “real and false at once,” (loc. 1613)   or imagined, or attained in some other way ?  As was mentioned,  the book uses real and imaginary artists – Alberto Giacometti (loc. 1507).

Reno meets Sandro Valera,   the boyfriend who was mentioned in the first chapters,  the  grandson of the Valera in WWI,  developer of the Moto Valera motorcycle.  They are together for a year when Reno returns to Nevada for the speed trials –  back around to Chapter 2.    She goes to film her bike tracks as well as race but she crashes which puts her in the Valero team (Italian) tent as the girlfriend of Sandro.

There are times I’m thinking Patty Smith –

And Italy seems to be another connection associated with the theme of identity.  How Italian are you?  (heh)  Reno studied there for a year,  Sandro is from there.  The language, the foods, the shared history are all relevant.  The mechanics at the race track in Nevada go on  strike with the workers at the Valera factory in Milan,  but do it the “work-to-rule” and a solidarity  “slow-down.”   The subject of the Red Brigades comes up – and the Argentinian regime.

Family is a part of identity and Sandro has no use for his – neither does his friend M.  Their families are part of the fasco-capitalist regimes.   Following the backstory of Sondro’s grandfather,  WWII comes up and rubber and Brazil – Sandro’s father is making those race cars and using rubber from Brazil – instead of from Malaysia which has been occupied by the Japanese.

And Reno does well – she sets a new record for women in the “Spirit of Italy” car and returns to New York where Sondro and company welcome her.  Sondro is not too happy about the car business – he wants to detach himself from his family,  their money,  their politics – even Italy.

Time has now come up as a theme.  Of course it’s related to speed but here it’s also related to women and enjoyable times.   There was a photo of a woman looking at her eye in a compact mirror a bit earlier.

Back in New York the book kind of  dragged for awhile.  Nothing happening –  then an interesting section about what some gang was doing – stealing and using the money to feed the people of the streets.  But these were really bad guys, too.  They called themselves the “Up Against the Wall Motherfuckers”   

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