"The Flamethrowers" by Rachel Kushner

I’m going to simply start this off by saying that I absolutely loved this novel and Rachel Kushner is a novelist who’s going to be talked about when this book is either nominated or receives a literary prize, whichever it may be. I had become aware of this novel after reading Frederick Siedel’s unfair review of it. I say unfair because after reading this, I couldn’t disagree more with his criticisms of it, although everyone has a right to their own point of view - even literary critics. It was the subject matter in which the novel bases itself around that originally made me sit up and take notice. So I bought it and immediately set about reading it. 
 
The story is somewhat epic in scope, although the principal narrative revolves around a 23 year old woman named Reno who comes to New York in the mid-1970s trying to make a name for herself as an artist. She settles in a small apartment in Little Italy (when it still was Little Italy) and she soon falls in with a group of New York artists (mostly minimalists) who get together and discuss art, life, creativity, the (then) art scene. (Rachel Kushner would have been a little girl at the time this story is set but her grasp of New York in the mid-1970s is perfect. Being that she is only a couple of years younger than myself, if she were aware at that young age of her surroundings (as I most certainly was) it wouldn’t be that much of a stretch to capture the mood, atmosphere and gritty feel of those days. And her portrayal of the SoHo art scene (before SoHo became the strip mall that it is today) - the run down buildings, the sparsely furnished lofts, the locals who lived around the neighborhood, it gives one a very realistic feeling and acts almost like a time machine for a New York long gone.) Reno eventually falls in with a popular local artist named Sandro Valera, who is the estranged son of the owner of the Valera motorcycle company. 
 
Reno is into motorcycles and she prides herself for owning a Moto Valera, a and in particular, a new model which had not yet reached the market. The novel opens with Reno in the Nevada salt flats, attempting a speed record. (She eventually succeeds and for a while becomes "the fastest chick alive"). What she’s really doing is working on an art project, her intention to photograph the tire tracks along the salt flats. There is a lot about motorcycles, racing, racers and her involvement with an Italian racing team who supplied the Valera motorcycle. Speed is the theme here. 
 
The novel then takes a unique turn, flashing back to World War I, revolving around Sandro’s father. Throughout the novel there are chapters about him and how he built his company, how he falls in with a group of fanatical motorcycle lovers and artists in Milan (The Italian Futurists) and their love of the modern, machinery and of course, speed. It’s helpful to know the link between the Futurists and the burgeoning fascist movement in early 20th Century Italy because this will figure in with the rest of the story. Sandro’s father eventually gets into the rubber business (for tires, naturally) and heads off to Brazil where he exploits the native population to enrich himself and build his empire. There are moments that recall both Sandro, and his brother Roberto, with their father and fascist dignitaries, their experiences after the devastation of World War II, references to Sandro’s father knowing one of the military men in the Argentine junta -  all of which is to set up Sandro’s estranged background and make clear that in an era of political revolt, they represent “the enemy”. 
 
Back in the 1970s, we learn more about the characters that Reno is hanging around, some of whom were part of  an anarchist group in the Lower East Side called The Motherfuckers. There is a chapter which details their actions and their thinking and way of life, giving a perfect portrait of the Lower East Side of that time period. Again, this will relate to an upcoming chapter and events in the story.  
 
Reno gets the opportunity to travel to Italy to take part in a race, much to the chagrin of Sandro, who wanted nothing more to do with Italy, his past, his family or anything else. He succumbs and both Reno and Sandro make the trip. She meets Sandro’s family, a very uptight, very wealthy group of people who don’t take too kindly to their son’s girlfriend. Meanwhile, taking place around them, are the actions of the Red Brigades - their kneecappings, kidnappings and other acts, and the Valera family, who still owns and operates their factory in Milan, is in the midst of a worker’s strike. 
 
A betrayal as well as the kidnapping of a prominent Italian racer ruins Reno’s opportunities and soon she’s off, with the Valera family’s gardner, a mysterious character named Gianni, who takes her to a Rome that’s in the midst of open revolt and the ever present danger of the antics of The Red Brigades. 
 
When Reno returns to New York, she’s a changed woman, dealing with betrayal and grappling with what is and what isn’t the truth, and herein lies much of what the novel is about. The truth cannot be trusted. What is truth? How much does one really know? How much does one really see? I think the links between the political activism of the past and that of the time period in which this story takes place is also meant to reflect this. The story is told - for the most part - through Reno’s eyes. We are forced to face each situation, experience each step she takes through a very narrow prism while all this upheaval is going on around her. How much of it does she really understand? Is she simply this naive young woman thrust into a world that is way beyond her understanding? The novel’s title has a reference point as well. One thinks of revolt, the Molotov Cocktail, the “Black Flames” regiment of the proto-fascist Arditi in Italy, artists as rebels, and how theory can so easily make the jump to unspeakable violence. 
 
It is an amazingly well written novel with a hell of a lot going on and I’m sure, in the future, there will be a lot written about this book. What I’ve written here only touches the surface, an “overview” of sorts. This is a novel that has to be read and thought about. A simple review will not do it justice (nor will the attempted “take downs” from the literary critics). This is a highly ambitious novel in a time when not many of them are being written and for me, it was a breath of fresh air to read a work of fiction that not only has a great story, great writing but also makes you think about the various themes and connections throughout. 

Prediction: Mark my words, you haven’t heard the last of this novel yet. Keep your eyes open during future literary prize announcements. This novel will figure heavily in all of them. 
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