The Flamethrowers – Rachel Kushner

The Flamethrowers

How I do love holidays, for all the time I have to read! I took on some big tomes over the break, one of which was Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers. Its of interest to me because its written in first person about the events of the late seventies art scene in New York and the radical marches of the Red Brigades in Italy in 1977.

The story opens with a spectacular land speed drive across the salt flats of Utah on a motor cycle. The rider is Reno, a 21 year old woman from New York who is interested in creating ‘land art’, a movement formed in the late 1960s in the US. Her idea is to create tracks in the sand with her motorcycle and photograph them.

She lives in New York with her boyfriend Sandro, an Italian heir to a Milan motorcycle and tyre fortune and minimalist artist. Theirs is a life peopled with all sorts of hangers-on, dreamers, self-promoters and liars. Given the chance to drive another of Sandro’s family motorcycles in Italy, they take off to see his family. Reno is caught up in the Red Brigade marches in Rome, which includes the factory workers  being exploited by Sando’s family empire.

Woven through the narrative is the story of Sandro’s father, a member of the Arditi in World War I, the Italian army’s elite stormtroopers, who rode motorcycles and wielded flamethrowers against their German enemy. His story stretches from a childhood in Egypt, through to the rainforests of Brazil where he makes his fortune from the rubber by exploiting plantation workers, to Sandro’s childhood in Milan.

The heart of this novel is its story-telling. All of the New York crowd love telling stories and its hard to know where the truth ends and fiction starts. Everyone seems to have a hidden agenda and be projecting something they are not. I think Kushner’s strength as a writer is in the sheer creativeness of her stories and in giving the characters telling them the plausibility to get away with it. It reminds me in a way of John Irving’s books with his detailed character stories that are always just on the fantastic side of believable.

Kushner’s prose is also wonderful – she describes the change in temperature in the desert – ‘The air turned cold as I climbed in elevation to a higher layer of the desert’s warm to cool parfait’. She creates some really great conversational gems out of unusual topics, such as the one on cars:

‘The VW doesn’t make you think of Hitler and genocide. Its a breast on wheels, a puffy little dream. The Cadillac now, that’s a different dream. Of the two, you’d expect the Cadillac would represent some unspeakable horror, crimes against humanity.’

These odd conversations, along with the descriptions of things like the New York street gang The Motherfuckers, make The Flamethrowers a compulsive read because you feel there’s always something new and fresh coming on the next page, all 383 of them. Then there’s the beautiful small observations, like the dress pins Sandro’s assistant has to extract from between the floorboards of his loft studio as a result of its previous incarnation as a dress factory.

But the narrative arc of this story wasn’t clear to me and I was left with a feeling of ‘so what’ at the end of it. Kushner has said she didn’t want to write a book that cohered, but to let the reader make the connections, so this lack of structure is deliberate. But its a lesson in how great storytelling can carry a book on its own, if its good enough.

Rachel Kushner isn’t afraid to invent stories and tell historical detail because its fascinating and its this that marks her as a really inventive writer.

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