When Rachel Kushner sat down to write her second novel, she had three images taped to the wall above her desk: A pretty young blonde woman, face painted for war, with an X of tape across her lips, which eventually became the cover image; a well-heeled engineer standing with his creation, a 1971 Ducati motorcycle; and two men racing by in a primitive cycle and sidecar, circa World War I.
The Flamethrowers, then, is a sort of weaving together of these disparate lives. Set partly in prewar Italy at the dawn of the Futurist movement, partly in the art world of New York in the 1970s, and converging briefly in the riots of the Autonomist movement in 1970s Rome, this is ultimately the story of a young woman called Reno who is reborn again and again through her acts of defiant grace.
In this story, art is not just an imitation of life but also life itself. Acts of life begin and end as performance, within the inescapable prison of self-consciousness. But this isn’t boilerplate postmodernism either; it’s a complex tale of youth and the need to escape oneself and one’s past, a story about time and speed and violence, about the roles we play, willingly and unwillingly, in the vast, closed system of the human stage. And it’s about a young woman, confused and yet self-possessed, remarkable in her search for meaning.
When Reno meets Sandro Valera, famed sculptor and prodigal heir to Italy’s greatest moto-empire, she has just moved to New York to live as an artist. He takes her in, and through him she meets the art-world elite. Her own work is still nebulous, unformed but for a notion of line and a love of movement. Chance intervenes—or as one of the characters has it, Reno “put herself in the way of life”—and her first serious project begins to take shape. But in The Flamethrow[Sat Mar 8 23:15:47 2014] enhancedContent.pl: Wide character in print at E:\websites\aquabrowser\IMCPL\app\site\enhancedContent.pl line 249. ers, momentum has a way of swerving into the ditch. In Italy, on her way to make a film with the Valera race team, events bring Reno crashing down hard.
Battered and bruised, she finds herself in a world of violence and anarchism, a brief encounter that is ultimately more positive and humane than the high-flying world she fled. Because life is not simple, nothing meaningful can be easy. And so away we go, this novel seems to say, racing off-road into the future.
Read a Q&A with Rachel Kushner about The Flamethrowers.
Three of the best books of 2013 are now available in paperback—and guaranteed to delight your reading group. Spanning the globe from Texas to Italy to Chechnya, these memorable stories are sure to spark discussion.
A WILD WEST DYNASTY
An old-fashioned tale of the West with all the trappings—Indian raids, oil booms and plenty of shoot-’em-up action—The Son by Philipp Meyer is at once a well-crafted work of literary fiction and a wild journey through the Lone Star State. When Eli McCullough, 13, is captured by Comanches, he’s forced to assimilate and develops into a formidable warrior. After he re-enters the world of white men, he becomes a Texas Ranger and establishes a sprawling ranch in South Texas. Along the way, he has adventures aplenty, some of them amorous (involving the wife of a judge), many of them bloody (a Mexican family is slaughtered under his orders). The novel is narrated in part by Eli, who, at the age of 100, is addressed by everyone as “the Colonel.” Sharing the storytelling duties are his weak-willed son, Peter, who’s considered a failure, and great-granddaughter Jeanne Anne, who fights to keep the McCullough dynasty intact in contemporary times. Reminiscent of grand Western sagas like Lonesome Dove, Meyer’s expertly written novel has the makings of a classic.
THE WEIGHT OF WAR
Anthony Marra’s outstanding debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, tells the story of a war orphan and the doctors who try to save her. During the Second Chechen War, 8-year-old Havaa stands by helplessly as her father, accused of a crime he had nothing to do with, is taken away by Russian soldiers, who burn down their home for good measure. Akhmed, a neighbor, finds Havaa hiding in the woods and, risking his own life, takes her to a run-down hospital where he hopes she’ll be looked after. Overworked and exhausted, the hospital’s only doctor, Sonja Rabina, has doubts about taking the girl in, but Akhmed convinces her to let Havaa stay on a provisional basis. As the book progresses, connections between the characters come to light, revealing a chilling network of betrayal. Marra’s depiction of war-torn Chechnya is all too accurate, yet he balances the bloodshed with moments of humor and the creation of characters who feel real to the reader. This is a landmark first novel from a writer worth watching.
TOP PICK FOR BOOK CLUBS
A finalist for the National Book Award, Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, is set in the 1970s and narrated by a young artist called Reno. Led by an obsession with motorcycles, Reno arrives in New York City hoping to channel her love of motion and speed into art. She becomes romantically involved with sculptor Sandro Valera, whose prominent family manufactures motorcycles and tires in Italy. Their famous bike—the Moto Valera—provides inspiration for Reno, who stages an art performance of sorts by racing one on the Bonneville Salt Flats. During a visit to Italy with Sandro, Reno joins up with a group of anarchic protesters only to find herself entangled in a murder. Navigating the worlds of politics and art proves trickier than she imagined, and she soon learns the meaning of betrayal. Reno proves to be a remarkable heroine—a courageous yet vulnerable young woman who isn’t afraid of taking risks. Kushner’s inventive style and obvious delight in language make this an unforgettable read.
Kushner launched herself splendidly with her debut, Telex from Cuba, a New York Times best seller and finalist for the 2008 National Book Award. Her new work sounds even better. When Reno heads to New York in 1977, hoping to make art of her fascination with motorcycles, she falls in with some artists/squatters in not-yet-chic Soho. Then she falls for the scion of an Italian motorcycle empire and travels to Italy, where (calamitously) she's drawn into the radical movement there. Huge in-house excitement.[Page 54]. (c) Copyright 2012. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Nicknamed for her birthplace, Reno loves speed--so much so that she hopes to set a world record racing her motorcycle on the Nevada salt flats. But she's also there to create a work of art with tire-track imagery, for Reno is indeed an artist, having moved to New York to pursue her interests. Along the grubbier edges of the city, she's met the movers, shakers, and hangers-on of the cutting-edge art scene of the late 1970s, including Sandro Valera, scion of an Italian family whose wealth rests on a vast tire and motorcycle empire. Scornful of his family, the older Sandro is a successful artist and quite a catch for Reno, who despite her tough-as-leather sensibility has something to learn about the cold, manipulative world. And learn she does when she heads to Italy with a reluctant Sandro, having fallen into what looks to be a great opportunity with the Valera racing team while in Nevada. Striking workers and fringe radicals are only a part of her education. VERDICT National Book Award finalist Kushner (Telex from Cuba) presents an incisive, enthralling portrait of a young woman finding her way. [See Prepub Alert, 10/15/12.]--Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal[Page 75]. (c) Copyright 2013. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This rich second novel from Kushner (Telex from Cuba) takes place in late-'70s New York City and Italy. Reno is a young filmmaker "shopping for experiences," who, as the novel opens, is attempting to set a land-speed record on her Moto Valera motorcycle in Nevada, only to crash instead. A flashback to New York finds her mixing with a group of artists, among whom she meets Sandro Valera, whose wealthy family manufactures the Moto Valera. Soon they are romantically entwined, and Reno accompanies Sandro on a visit home to Italy. She risks alienating the Valeras by going to their factory to film labor unrest, only to catch Sandro there in flagrante delicto with his cousin Talia. Distraught, she flees with Valera family servant Gianni to Rome, where she discovers Gianni is involved with a volatile protest movement. Snippets from the life of Sandro's father's run in intriguing contrast to Reno's story, presenting his WWI experiences, childhood in Alexandria, Egypt, and the founding of his company. Kushner's psychological explorations of her characters are incisive, the novel is peppered with subtle '70s details, and it bursts with you-are-there depictions of its time and places. Agent Susan Golomb, Susan Golomb Agency. (Apr.)[Page ]. Copyright 2013 PWxyz LLC