Art and anarchy combust in Rachel Kushner's edgy, 1970s-set novel The Flamethrowers.
“There's a false idea that accidents happen in slow motion,” says the narrator, who at speeds above 100 mph feels like she can capture every granule of time.
Kushner's second novel takes place well above the speed limit and without any safety gear, but the National Book Award finalist never loses control.
Reno (her hometown, not her real name) has come to New York to make it as a conceptual artist.
In the process, she crashes a motorcycle at 140 mph and take pictures of the accident's tracks, sets the 1976 land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, becomes a color-correction model, travels to Italy, and waits for art to happen to her.
“The fastest chick in the world,” as one character dubs her, admits that she is “shopping for experience.”
Unfortunately, returns are not an option, even if she had kept the receipt.
“I come from reckless, unsentimental people,” Reno tells readers at the beginning. “I trusted the need for risk, the importance of honoring it.”
She got the reckless, but the sentiment is harder to shake.
Reno embarks on an affair with Sandro Valera, estranged scion of an Italian motorcycle company who shows empty aluminum boxes in galleries. (It was the '70s.) She joins his crowd, who spends way more time talking about art than creating it. Giddle, a former Factory girl, took on the role of waitress as performance art but is now trapped in it. “Anyone can be a success,” she says, bless her. “It's so much more interesting not to want it.” Sandro's oldest friend is Ronnie Fontaine, a successful artist who lies endlessly and inventively about his past. There's also Burdmore Model, a sincere soul who belonged to an anarchist group that can't be named in a family newspaper; Gloria and Stanley Kastle, an artist whose assistants handle the art while he spends most of his time recording monologues on a reel-to-reel tape recorder; and a guy that walks around with a red and white striped pole, bonking people on the head at galleries. Needless to say, everyone is sleeping with one another.
As the youngest, Reno is game for anything but seriously naive. Kushner uses her narrator, who has an observant eye but can't parse what she's actually seeing, to explore SoHo. “You just seemed too young,” Ronnie tells her near the end of the novel. “And you were. But honestly I don't even know if you'd be different older. I like you. But there's something you never seem to get.”
The novel kicks off with a set piece at the Bonneville Salt Flats, where Kushner recounts Reno's childhood worship of the fictional land-speed record holder Flip Farmer, who is airbrushed so vividly I would have sworn he was real.
“Pink gasoline and synthetic red engine oil soaked into the salt like butcher shop residue,” Reno recounts as she arrives at the flats. “The salt itself, up close, was the color of unbleached sugar, but the sunlight used it as if it were the brightest white.”
Kushner, whose 2008 novel, “Telex From Cuba,” was a finalist for the National Book Award, covers an enormous amount of geographic and historical territory. She pokes fun at the self-importance of the bloviating artistic types, examines the link between pinball and anarchists, flashes back to World War I, then switches gears to discuss the plight of indigenous rubber tappers in the Amazon. Interwoven in between Reno's story are chapters talking about Sandro's father, a World War I veteran and founder of the Moto Valera empire.
Kushner can write the heck out of a simile. Roy Orbison's hair is “as black as melted-down record vinyl.” Giddle is described at a club as shining “like something wet, a piece of candy that had been in someone's mouth.” An unfortunate racer has “eyes like raisins” and feathered hair that falls in fluffy croissant layers.
Much of the second half of the novel takes place in Italy, where Reno inadvertently wades into anarchy and murder while somehow managing to miss capturing any of it on film. As an artist, she has her limitations. As a character, she's unforgettable.