Rachel Kushner’s first novel was a finalist for a National Book Award, and her second book gives every indication that the initial acclaim was well-earned. With a broader scope and a more intricate cast of characters, The Flamethrowers is set in the 1970s, a period marked with disbelief, unrest and revolt. The story is told through the observations of a young woman named Reno, dutifully carrying the name of the Nevada city in which she was raised.
The Flamethrowers is to Telex From Cuba as a global tour is to a weekend stopover. In her first novel, Kushner concentrated on sugar plantations outside of Havana in the 1950s. In The Flamethrowers, the story travels from the Bonneville Salt Flats to the art nouveau culture of New York and eventually to the labor revolts in Italy.
Reno, something of a groupie, serves as the lens on the turbulent time. As the story opens, she has talked her way into a group of professional motorcycle racers. She’s interested in speed and cycles but mostly wants to make an avant garde film about cycling. “I never met a girl who rides Italian motorcycles,” one of the cyclists tells her. “It’s like you aren’t real.” Determined to prove just how real she is, Reno winds up crashing her bike on the Bonneville Salt Flats — and learns a lesson.
“There’s a false idea that accidents happen in slow motion,” she says. “In an accident, everything that happens is simultaneous, sudden, irreversible. It means this: no going back.”
From this point on, Kushner sharpens and broadens her portrait of Reno as she constantly moves forward in this era of upheaval, to the art world in New York and then across the Atlantic to the palatial villa of an Italian automotive baron. David Copperfield’s initiation into the business and social world of London is no less revelatory than Reno’s sudden immersion into the cultures of art and then of labor movements, as she accompanies a friend to visit his family in Rome.
If there is one constant in many of the people Reno meets during this sojourn it is their artifice. Beneath each persona, Reno eventually discovers a flaw in the costume, casting doubt on everything else the person purports to be.
This Jekyll-Hyde nature of the major players in Reno’s world in turn throws doubt on the entire era. In Rome, as Reno is thrust into the middle of a labor revolt by workers at the auto company owned by her boyfriend’s family, Kushner shows how falsehoods and betrayal are present on both sides, leaving her with no distinct hero and no real villain. The dispute closely mirrors events in Telex From Cuba. In both stories, Kushner deftly examines the abyss that separates workers from business owners.
A personal betrayal finally reveals the truth about those Reno hoped would provide guidance and direction. “I was alone and rootless,” she thinks. “I had fallen through a hole and landed in a massive crowd of strangers, this stream of faces. . . .”
Kushner’s portrait of Reno is much more than a pencil sketch of a young rebel looking for a cause. It is a deeply layered depiction of a journey from appearance to reality.