The Flamethrowers

The Flamethrowers

by Rachel Kushner

Hardcover

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781439142004
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: 04/02/2013
Pages: 383
Sales rank: 619,165
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Rachel Kushner is the bestselling author of The Flamethrowers, a finalist for the National Book Award and a New York Times Top Ten Book of 2013; Telex from Cuba, a finalist for the National Book Award; and The Mars Room. She lives in Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

2. Spiritual America

I walked out of the sun, unfastening my chin strap. Sweat was pooling along my collarbone, trickling down my back and into my nylon underwear, running down my legs under the leather racing suit. I took off my helmet and the heavy leather jacket, set them on the ground, and unzipped the vents in my riding pants.

I stood for a long time tracking the slow drift of clouds, great fluffy masses sheared flat along their bottom edges like they were melting on a hot griddle.

There were things I had no choice but to overlook, like wind effect on clouds, while flying down the highway at a hundred miles an hour. I wasn’t in a hurry, under no time constraint. Speed doesn’t have to be an issue of time. On that day, riding a Moto Valera east from Reno, it was an issue of wanting to move across the map of Nevada that was taped to my gas tank as I moved across the actual state. Through the familiar orbit east of Reno, the brothels and wrecking yards, the big puffing power plant and its cat’s cradle of coils and springs and fencing, an occasional freight train and the meandering and summer-shallow Truckee River, railroad tracks and river escorting me to Fernley, where they both cut north.

From there the land was drained of color and specificity, sage-tufted dirt and incessant sameness of highway. I picked up speed. The faster I went, the more connected I felt to the map. It told me that fifty-six miles after Fernley I’d hit Lovelock, and fifty-six miles after leaving Fernley I hit Lovelock. I moved from map point to map point. Winnemucca. Valmy. Carlin. Elko. Wells. I felt a great sense of mission, even as I sat under a truck stop awning, sweat rolling down the sides of my face, an anonymous breeze, hot and dry, wicking the damp from my thin undershirt. Five minutes, I told myself. Five minutes. If I stayed longer, the place the map depicted might encroach. A billboard across the highway said schaefer. when you’re having more than one. A bluebird landed on the branch of a sumac bush under the high-clearance legs of the billboard. The bird surfed its slack branch, its feathers a perfect even blue like it had been powder-coated at the factory. I thought of Pat Nixon, her dark gleaming eyes and ceremonial outfits stiff with laundry starch and beading. Hair dyed the color of whiskey and whipped into an unmoving wave. The bird tested out a short whistle, a lonely midday sound lost in the infinite stretch of irrigation wheels across the highway. Pat Nixon was from Nevada, like me, and like the prim little state bird, so blue against the day. She was a ratted beauty-parlor tough who became first lady. Now we would likely have Rosalynn Carter with her glassy voice and her big blunt friendly face, glowing with charity. It was Pat who moved me. People who are harder to love pose a challenge, and the challenge makes them easier to love. You’re driven to love them. People who want their love easy don’t really want love.

I paid for my gas to the sound of men in the arcade room playing a video game called Night Driver. They were seated in low-slung cockpits made of sparkling, molded fiberglass, steering jerkily, pale-knuckled, trying to avoid the guardrail reflectors on either side of the road, the fiberglass cockpits jiggling and rocking as the men attempted to steer themselves out of catastrophe, swearing and angrily bopping the steering wheel with the heel of a hand when they burned and crashed. It had been this way at several truck stops now. This was how the men rested from driving. Later I told Ronnie Fontaine. I figured it was something Ronnie would find especially funny but he didn’t laugh. He said, “Yeah, see. That’s the thing about freedom.” I said, “What?” And he said, “Nobody wants it.”

My uncle Bobby, who hauled dirt for a living, spent his final moments of life jerking his leg to depress the clutch while lying in a hospital, his body determined to operate his dump truck, clutching and shifting gears as he sped toward death on a hospital gurney. “He died on the job,” his two sons said, unmoved. Bobby was too mean for them to love. Scott and Andy had been forced to oil Bobby’s truck every Sunday and now he was dead and they had Sundays to themselves, to oil their own trucks. Bobby was my mother’s brother. Growing up, we’d all lived together. My mother worked nights, and Bobby was what we had as a parent. Done driving his dump truck, he sat inexplicably nude watching TV and made us operate the dial for him, so he wouldn’t have to get up. He’d fix himself a big steak and give us instant noodles. Sometimes he’d take us to a casino, leave us in the parking lot with bottle rockets. Or play chicken with the other cars on I-80, with me and Scott and Andy in the backseat covering our eyes. I come from reckless, unsentimental people. Sandro used this against me on occasion. He pretended I was placed in his life to torture him, when it was really the other way around. He acted smitten but I was the smitten one. Sandro held all the power. He was older by fourteen years and a successful artist, tall and good-looking in his work clothes and steel-toed boots—the same kinds of clothes that Bobby and Scott and Andy wore, but on Sandro they added up to something else: a guy with a family inheritance who could use a nail gun, a drill press, a person not made effete by money, who dressed like a worker or sometimes a bum but was elegant in those clothes, and never hampered by the question of whether he belonged in a given situation (the question itself was evidence of not belonging).

Sandro kept a photo above the desk in his loft, him posing on a couch next to Morton Feldman in his Coke-bottle glasses, Sandro looking cool and aloof, holding a raised, loaded shotgun, its barrel one long half of the letter X crossing the photograph diagonally. Slashing it. It was a black-and-white image but you could see that Sandro’s eyes were the whitish-blue of a wolf ’s, giving him a cold, sly intensity. The photo was taken in Rhinebeck, where his friends Gloria and Stanley Kastle had a place. Sandro was allowed to shoot guns on their property, various handguns and rifles he had collected, some of them made by his family’s company before they got out of the firearms business. Sandro liked shotguns most of all and said if you ever needed to actually kill someone, that was what you’d want, a shotgun. That was his way, to tersely let it be known in his light accent, barely Italian, that he could kill someone if he had to.

Women responded to this. They came on to him right in front of me, like the gallerist Helen Hellenberger, a severe but beautiful Greek woman who dressed as if it were permanently 1962, in a black shift and with upswept hair. We ran into her on Spring Street just before I departed for Reno to pick up the Moto Valera for this trip. Helen Hellenberger, in her tight dress and leather flats, holding her big leather pocketbook as if it were a toolbox, had said she wanted so badly to come to Sandro’s studio. Would she have to beg? She’d put her hand on his arm and it seemed as if she wasn’t going to let go until he said yes. Sandro was with the Erwin Frame Gallery. Helen Hellenberger wanted to steal him for her own gallery. He tried to redirect her by introducing me, not as his girlfriend but as “a young artist, just out of school,” as if to say, you can’t have me, but here’s something you might consider picking up. An offer she had to maneuver around in order to press on and get him to commit to the studio visit.

“With an art degree from . . . where?” she asked me.

“UNR,” I said. I knew she wouldn’t be familiar with the school’s initials.

“She’s influenced by Land Art,” Sandro said. “And her ideas are great. She made a beautiful film about Reno.”

Helen Hellenberger represented the best-known Land Artists, all midcareer, blue-chip, and so I felt especially self-conscious about Sandro’s insistence that she learn about me, my work. I wasn’t ready to show with Helen Hellenberger and in his pretending that I was, I felt Sandro was insulting me without necessarily intending to. It was possible he knew this. That he found some perverse humor in offering me in lieu of himself.

“Oh. Where did you say—” She was feigning a low-level politeness, just enough to satisfy him.

“Nevada,” I said.

“Well, now you can really learn about art.” She smiled at him as if depositing a secret between them. “If you’re with Sandro Valera. What a mentor for someone who’s just arrived from . . . Idaho?”

“Reno,” Sandro said. “She’s going out there to do a piece. Drawing a line across the salt flats. It’s going to be great. And subtle. She’s got really subtle ideas about line and drawing.”

He had tried to put his arm around me but I’d moved away. I knew how I looked to this beautiful woman who slept with half her roster, according to Ronnie Fontaine, who was on her roster himself: I was nothing but a minor inconvenience in her campaign to represent Sandro.

“So you’ll be going out West?” she’d asked before we parted ways, and then she’d questioned me about the particulars of my ride with an interest that didn’t quite seem genuine. Only much later did I think back to that moment, look at it. You’ll be going out of town? Reno, Idaho. Someplace far away.

When I was getting ready to depart, Sandro acted as if I might not be coming back, as if I were leaving him to solitude and tedium, a penance he’d resigned himself to enduring. He rolled his eyes about the appointment Helen Hellenberger had wrangled.

“I’ll be here getting eaten by vultures,” he said, “while you’re tearing across the salt flats, my unknown competitors drooling over you like stunned idiots. Because that’s what you do,” he’d said, “you inhibit thought. With your young electricity.”

When you’re having more than one. I sat at the truck stop, facing that billboard, naively thinking my young electricity was enough.

Helen Hellenberger’s stable of Land Artists included the most famous, Robert Smithson, who died three years earlier while I was a student at UNR. I had learned about him and the Spiral Jetty from an obituary in the newspaper and not from my art department, which was provincial and conservative (the truth in Helen’s snub was that I did learn more from Sandro than I had in art school). The foreman who built the Spiral Jetty was quoted explaining how tricky it had been to construct it on such soft mud, and that he had almost lost some very expensive equipment. He was risking men and front loaders and regretted taking the job, and then the artist shows up in the Utah summertime desert, it’s 118 degrees, and the guy is wearing black leather pants. Smithson was quoted declaring that pollution and industry could be beautiful, and that it was because of the railroad cutoff and the oil dredging that he chose this part of the Great Salt Lake for his project, where the lake’s supply of fresh water had been artificially cut, raising the salt content so high that nothing but red algae could grow. I had immediately wanted to see this thing made by a New York artist in leather pants, who described more or less the slag-heap world of the West I knew, as it looked to me, and found it worth his attentions. I went there, crossed the top of Nevada, and came down just over the Utah border. I watched the water, which pushed peculiar drifts, frothy, white, and ragged. The white drifts looked almost like snow but they moved like soap, quivering and weightless. Spiky desert plants along the shore were coated in an icy fur of white salt. The jetty was submerged but I could see it through the surface of the water. It was the same basalt from the lake’s shore, rearranged to another form. The best ideas were often so simple, even obvious, except that no one had thought of them before. I looked at the water and the distant shore of the lake, a vast bowl of emptiness, jagged rocks, high sun, stillness. I would move to New York City.

Which was an irony, because the artist himself had gone from New York to the West to make his specifically western dreams come true. I was from the place, the hard-hat-wearing, dump-truck-driving world the Land Artists romanticized. So why did Helen Hellenberger pretend to confuse Idaho and Nevada? It was an irony but a fact that a person had to move to New York City first, to become an artist of the West. If that’s what I was going to be. Sandro declared it, “she’s influenced by Land Art,” but this also served to explain away the fact that he was with a woman so young, with no detectable pedigree or accomplishments. Just his word.

When I was little, skiing in the Sierras, I felt that I was drawing on the mountain’s face, making big sweeping graceful lines. That was how I had started to draw, I’d told Sandro, as a little girl, five, six years old, on skis. Later, when drawing became a habit, a way of being, of marking time, I always thought of skiing. When I began ski racing, slalom and giant slalom, it was as if I were tracing lines that were already drawn, and the technical challenge that shadowed the primary one, to finish with a competitive time, was to stay perfectly in the lines, to stay early through the gates, to leave no trace, because the harder you set your skis’ metal edges, the bigger wedge of evidence you left, the more you slowed down. You wanted no snow spraying out behind you. You wanted to be traceless. To ride a flat ski as much as possible. The ruts that cut around and under the bamboo gates, deep trenches if the snow was soft, were to be avoided by going high, by picking a high and graceful line, with no sudden swerves or shuddering edges, as I rode the rails to the finish.

Ski racing was drawing in time, I said to Sandro. I finally had someone listening who wanted to understand: the two things I loved were drawing and speed, and in skiing I had combined them. It was drawing in order to win.

The first winter I was dating Sandro we went to the Kastles’ place up in Rhinebeck for Christmas. It snowed heavily one night, and in the morning I borrowed cross-country skis and skied across a frozen pond, made tracks that went across it in an X, and photographed them. “That will be good,” Sandro said, “your X.” But I wasn’t satisfied by those tracks. Too much effort, the plodding blobs of ski poles every ten feet. Cross-country skiing was like running. It was like walking. Contemplative and aerobic. The trace was better if it was clean, if it was made at some unnatural speed. I asked the Kastles if we could borrow their truck. We did doughnuts on the snow-covered meadow beyond the frozen pond, me spinning the steering wheel like Scott and Andy had taught me, Sandro laughing as the truck’s tires slid. I made broad, circular tracks in the meadow and photographed those. But it was only about having a good time upstate. I thought art came from a brooding solitude. I felt it had to involve risk, some genuine risk.

My five minutes at the truck stop were almost up. I rebraided my hair, which was knotted from the wind and crimped in odd places from the padding in my helmet.

Drivers were arguing about truck color. A purple rig shone like a grape Popsicle among the rows of semis. A cup of cola sailed toward its grille, casting a vote with a slam and clatter of cubes. The men laughed and started to disperse. Nevada was a tone, a light, a deadness that was part of me. But it was different to come back here now. I’d left. I was here not because I was stuck here, but to do something. To do it and then return to New York.

One of the truckers spoke to me as he passed. “That yours?”

For a moment, I thought he meant the truck. But he tipped his chin toward the Moto Valera.

I said yes and kept braiding my hair.

He smiled in a friendly way. “You know what?”

I smiled back.

“You won’t look nearly so good when they’re loading you off the highway in a body bag.”

all vehicles with livestock must be weighed. I passed the weigh station, breezed through third gear and into the midrange of fourth, hitting seventy miles an hour. I could see the jagged peaks of tall mountains, stale summer snow filtered by the desert haze to the brownish tone of pantyhose. I was going eighty. Won’t look nearly as good. People love a fatality. I redlined it, still in fourth gear, waiting.

Light winked from the back of something silver, up ahead in the right lane. I rolled off the throttle but didn’t downshift. As I got closer, I recognized the familiar rounded rear corners of a Greyhound. Builds character, my mother liked to say. She had ridden buses alone in the early 1950s, an episode just before I was born that was never explained and didn’t seem quite wholesome, a young woman drifting around on buses, patting cold water on her face in gas station bathrooms. The footage ran through my mind in high-contrast black and white, light cut to ribbons, desperate women accidentally strangled by telephone cords, or alone with the money, drinking on an overcast beach in big sunglasses. My mother’s life was not so glamorous. She was a switchboard operator, and if her past included something akin to noir, it was only the gritty part, the part about being female, poor, and alone, which, in a film, was enough of a circumstance to bring in the intrigue, but in her life it attracted only my father. He left when I was three. Everyone in the family said it was good riddance, and that uncle Bobby was a better father to me than my own could have been. As I approached the Greyhound, ready to pass, I saw that the windows were meshed and blacked. Exhaust was blowing out carelessly from its loose, lower panels, nevada corrections on its side. A mobile prison, with passengers who could not see out. But perhaps to see out was worse. Once, as a kid, riding my bicycle around the county jail, I had seen a man staring down at me from his barred window. A fine-grade rain was falling. I stopped pedaling and looked up at his small face, framed by a gravity-flop of greasy blond hair. The rain was almost invisible. He put an arm through the bars. To feel the rain, I assumed. He gave me the middle finger.

“Save your freedom for a rainy day,” someone had written on the bathroom wall at Rudy’s Bar in SoHo, where Sandro and Ronnie liked to drink. It remained there at eye level above the washbasin all summer. No retorts or cross-outs. Just this blank command as you angled and turned your hands under the faucet.

I passed the bus, shifted into fifth, and hit ninety, the orange needle steady on the face of my black speedometer. I tucked down into my little fairing. I loved that fairing the moment I saw the bike at the dealership in Reno, where I picked it up. Metal-flake teal, the color of deep freeze. It was a brand-new 650 supersport. It was actually a ’77—next year’s model. It was so new no one in the United States had one but me. I had never seen a Moto Valera this color. The one I’d owned in college, a ’65, had been white.

I’d ridden motorcycles since I was fourteen. I started out riding in the woods behind our house, with Scott and Andy, who had Yamaha DTs, the first real dirt bikes. Before I learned to ride, I’d ridden on the back of my cousins’ scramblers, which were street bikes they customized, no passenger pegs, my legs held out to the sides in hopes of avoiding an exhaust pipe burn. They were not street legal, no headlight or license plate, but Scott and Andy rode with me on the back all over Reno. Except past the front of our house, because my mother had forbidden me to ride on my cousins’ motorcycles. I held on for wheelies and jumps and learned quickly to trust. It wasn’t Scott and Andy I trusted, one of whom angled a wheelie too high and flipped the bike with me on the back (he had not yet learned to tap the foot brake, to tilt the bike forward), and the other took a jump over a pile of dirt at a construction site and told me to hold tight. That was Andy. He landed with the front end too pitched and we went over the handlebars. I didn’t trust their skills. I had no reason to, since they crashed regularly. I trusted the need for risk, the importance of honoring it. In college, I bought a Moto Valera and then sold it to move to New York. With my new life in the big city, I thought I’d lose interest but I didn’t. Maybe I would have, had I not met Sandro Valera.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

“Kushner is rapidly emerging as a thrilling and prodigious novelist.”—Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom

“Oscillating between the hedonistic New York artworld and Italy in the midst of the Years of Lead, The Flamethrowers is that rare thing, a novel that uses recent history not as a picturesque backdrop, but as a way of interrogating the present. Kushner’s urgent prose and psychological acuity make this one of the most compelling and enjoyable novels I’ve read this year.”—Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men

“The controlled intensity and perception in Rachel Kushner's novels mark her as one of the most brilliant writers of the oncoming century. She's going to be one we turn to for our serious pleasures and for the insight and wisdom we'll be needing in hard times to come. Rachel Kushner is a novelist of the very first order. The Flamethrowers follows Telex from Cuba as a masterful work.”—Robert Stone

Dana Spiotta

"Rachel Kushner writes dazzling, sexy, glorious prose. She is as brilliant on men and motorcycles as she is on art and film. The Flamethrowers is an ambitious and powerful novel.

Karen Russell

The Flamethrowers lives up to its incendiary title—it is a brilliant, startling truly revolutionary book about the New York art world of the seventies, Italian class warfare, and youth's blind acceleration into the unknown. Kushner is a genius prose stylist, and her Reno is one of the most fully realized protagonists I've ever encountered, moving fluidly from the fringe of the fringe movement to the center of the action. I want to recommend this stunning book to everyone I know.”

Reading Group Guide

This Scribner reading group guide for The Flamethrowers includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.


Introduction

The young and impressionable unnamed narrator of The Flamethrowers, occasionally referred to by other characters as “Reno,” grew up in that Nevada town, riding motorcycles with her rough and tumble cousins, and studied fine art at the University of Nevada. When she moves to New York in 1975 with little more than a camera, she finds a fast-paced downtown art world of makers, fakers, manipulators, lovers, and friends. She begins dating a golden boy of that world, Sandro Valera, an artist and wealthy heir to an Italian motorcycle fortune. For an art project, ‘Reno’ rides a Moto Valera in the land speed trials on the Bonneville Salt Flats. She is invited to travel with the Valera race team in Italy, but when she goes to Sandro’s ancestral estate to meet his family, she discovers a rift she can’t bridge, one that sends her spiraling through betrayal, and into a radical scene in Rome.

Topics & Questions for Discussion

1. Reno wants to create Land Art in the manner of iconic artists like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer. Why does she leave the West, where both of those famous figures chose to make their work, for New York City? Is the contemporary art world accessible to most people? Or is it somewhat elitist?

2. On her trip back West for the speed trials at the Bonneville salt flats, Reno watches a couple literally playing with fire at a gas station. A man flicks matches at spilled gasoline on his girlfriend’s legs. In another scene, a truck driver tells Reno she won’t look nearly as good in a body bag. What do these interactions imply about the world Reno inhabits?

3. Reno reflects that Stretch, the maintenance man at the motel near the salt flats, had said her name “like he believed he knew her.” And yet readers never learn her actual name. Why do you think the author chose to leave her nameless? Would we know her better if we knew the name that Stretch uttered?

4. Were you surprised Reno wiped out on the salt flats? Why or why not?

5. What first got Sandro’s father into motorcycles? To what extent was his lustful desire for Marie a factor?

6. As a young person, Sandro’s father encounters a gang of subversives in Rome. What are these rabble-rousers rejecting about the “old” Italy? What is exciting to them about machines, and the future? About going to fight in World War One? Are their expectations about the war met, or not?

7. Giddle, who claims to work at a coffee shop as a kind of conceptual performance, tells Reno the most cowardly acts are to exhibit ambition, to become famous, and to kill yourself. Is this yet one more performance, or is there some honesty in what she says? Do you have the sense that Giddle is more naïve than Reno, or less? More or less wise to the ways of the art world? To the ways of men?

8. Reno is a “China girl” on film stock leader, which her boss Marvin says is “as much a part of the film as its narrative,” despite her being unseen and in the margin. Is there any thematic echo of this in Reno’s presence in the novel? She is the narrator, but often others (mostly men) with stronger personalities drown her out. Perhaps find an image of a China girl online and talk about these mysterious film lab secretaries who posed in the now gone era of celluloid film.

9. How would you describe the relationship between Stanley Kastle and his wife Gloria? Do you think their behavior and antagonism is a kind of game, or something darker?

10. Is it simply bad luck to be hit with a meteorite while sitting in the kitchen? If so, why does Reno imagine the scenario of a bored housewife regarding it as something special, a kind of destiny?

11. Reno says that the smell of gasoline on the crowd of people in Rome—and the disconnect between that world and the one she grew up in—made her “sad for Scott and Andy in a way [she] could not explain” (284). If you had to explain it for her, what would you say?

12. The theme of time seems to crop up in various ways. Reno says that “curler time was about living the now with a belief that a future, an occasion for set hair, existed.” What do you think she means? Is Reno herself in “curler time”? Meanwhile, Sandro’s father says that unlike men, women “are trapped in time.” What makes him say this? Do you agree with him?

13. Do you think Ronnie is being unfair when he “demonstrates” for Reno “the uselessness of the truth”? Or do you think she had it coming? Is Ronnie a sympathetic character despite being incapable of sincerity?

14. Why do you think we suddenly hear from Sandro directly, near the close of the novel? Does he sufficiently account for his choices, when he shares with the reader his “side” of things?

15. After waiting all day for Gianni to ski down into France, Reno gives up in order to move on “to the next question.” (383) How has Reno changed by the end of the novel, and why do you think the author chose to end on this melancholy and ambiguous note? Would it have been more satisfying if Reno had triumphed by the end, found her way to love and success? Or would you have felt manipulated?

Enhance Your Book Club

1. Bring in some books on Futurist art, Italian design, modernist architecture (especially in Milan and Brasilia), and Minimalism, to enhance discussions of Sandro’s art and his father’s industrial design in The Flamethrowers.

2. Take a look at the spring 2013 issue of the Paris Review, whose art Kushner curated—a suite of images that inspired her as she wrote the novel (you can also access it online, at http://www.theparisreview.org/art-photography/6197/the-flamethrowers-rachel-kushner).

3. Watch the wonderful and sad 1970 movie Wanda, by Barbara Loden, which Reno watches in chapter twelve of The Flamethrowers, but never names. Another movie recommendation: the documentary On Any Sunday, starring Steve McQueen, a fascinating timepiece of early 1970s motorcycle riding.

4. Share stories of your experiences, if you’ve had them, of going to any of the places in the book–the salt flats, New York City, Lake Como, Rome. Also, your experiences of being alone on a road trip, whether by car, motorcycle, bus, etc.

5. Serve a spaghetti and wine dinner with your reading group. Buon appetito!

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The Flamethrowers: A Novel 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Atthebeach More than 1 year ago
I am aware that critics are calling The Flamethrowers 'the great American novel' and other such things. I agree that the author writes with striking verbiage, wonderful syntax, and amazing description of scenes and persons and places. She, somewhat like Mailer whose style I love, makes you want to re-read paragraphs and pages to appreciate the writing along the way.  Her characters are complex, not too admirable, but interesting---often hard to like but always fascinating to watch. Many are full of themselves and the dialogue in certain occasions goes on too long like a long dinner party with too many egos we sometimes attend. The main character, Reno, is young and unfinished, still learning who she is as she encounters these many unique and much bigger characters. She is used and carried and hangs on to go with the flow, and along the way experiences places and things---and people---that will form her life and change her forever. Unfortunately, we don't know how Reno turns out; we can only imagine. I kept wanting her to get stronger and more her own person. I kept wanting more to happen in the plot, the story. While the descriptions were vivid and the conversations philosophical and thought-provoking, I wanted the story to go farther. I love how the book was written, but not so much where it went. 
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ajWA More than 1 year ago
She's been compared to Joan Didion and indeed, her "lapidary" prose does thrill as it cuts to the core of complicated political and psychological goings-on, in the turbulent, topsy-turvy times of 1970's U.S. and Italy. If this sounds like a lot to chew on, therein lies both the beauty and the flaws of this novel - an ambitious study of a young woman's coming of age, artistically and socially, that sometimes is brilliant but at others seems patched together. A bit more editing, perhaps, and this story would have flowed more smoothly. Too many of the male characters seemed cut from the same cloth.
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Margie_Reads More than 1 year ago
Traipsing through the 70's with these characters amused me. I liked the memory triggers.
TheReadingWriter More than 1 year ago
It is the late ‘70s. Reno is a young drifter with pretensions to art. She lands in New York and hangs at the edges of a group whose composition changes with the inclinations of Sandro and Ronnie. Sandro, Ronnie, and Gianni, the men Reno spends her time with and learns from, are central but elusive figures in this drama. Sandro’s father, the man who teaches Sandro about how life really works, is also a central but elusive figure. Reno is, literally and figuratively, a printer’s reference, a human Caucasian face against which film color corrections could be matched to a referent. Subliminally viewed, if at all, her face might sometimes leave an afterimage. Only filmmakers and projectionists knew of her existence. “Their ordinariness was part of their appeal: real but unreachable women who left no sense of who they were. No clue but a Kodak color bar, which was no clue at all.” When we first see her, Reno is riding a fast motorcycle in the desert and later photographs her tracks. Sandro elevates her work by calling this a type of ‘land art.’ She wipes out, smashing the motorcycle, but her efforts lead to a larger success in setting a land speed record—more sport than art. She travels to Italy to promote the bike she rode in the Southwest desert. I have seen references to this as a “feminist” novel. It would not have occurred to me to say that, though there is some movement of a young, untried woman towards a greater understanding of her place in the world who then begins to take charge of her freedom. She also has a glimpse, towards the end of the story, of the men in her life not merely as simple stock images or disposable short outtakes of a larger film. “Cropping can make outcomes so ambiguous…” These are men with all the feelings and dreams, histories and futures of men and she is growing up. Reno as a character is particularly attractive in that she is able, in the course of this novel, to go off without a lover, rent an apartment on her own, and ride a motorcycle about New York City. This may be the dream of any young person anywhere: it is not feminism, but life. But what held me were the ideas about art, about looking, about believing, about making the effort. Reno’s friend Giddle believed herself to be a performance artist of sorts, but somewhere along the way she lost the thread, the point. Sandro made empty boxes. Ronnie photographed beat-up women. Reno made short films of street life. The art created by these folk, and the folk themselves when we first meet them, are stock images, referents for life. But by the end we have had growth and all are in the process of becoming. Sandro’s father has a critical role in this novel. The backdrop of his powerful and moneyed world of making tires for racing vehicles represents the old guard against which the artists and Italian Red Brigade demonstrators were rebelling. Yet he was a rebel in his time. The father taught Sandro important truths about the world: that there is evil and greed; that power matters; that guns don’t always fire as advertised; that Flamethrowers can be clumsy targets rather than objects of envy. Flamethrowers’ fire often ran back up the hose and consumed the perpetrator. Kushner held me spellbound with her descriptions of New York’s art scene in the ‘70s. Using Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning Just Kids as a referent, we get a similar feeling of a young, edgy, trial-by-error art scene.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
LaFilleDuVall More than 1 year ago
The writing is flawless in this novel. It covers a broad spectrum of cultures including Reno, New York City, South America and Italy during the 70's and 80's with flashbacks to post WWII. A young woman, who is a skier, motorcyclist and artist from Reno, has a romance with an older, sophisticated artist who is one of the sons of an Italian tycoon who manufactured tires, cars and motorcycles. The Italian magnate developed his fortune by exploiting native labor in South America then in later years, the company is under siege by exploited Italian workers, which leads to strikes, protests and kidnapping. The insights about the very rich, such as dressing for dinner while eating stale bread because they are too stingy to have bread baked daily by the cooks, is entertaining. The young artist lets herself be swept passively into the world of the elite and into the streets with protesters while her older lover, not surprisingly, carries on multiple affairs and ignores the rights of the workers on whose backs his fortune was built. Most descriptions of this book emphasize the art world part of the narrative; however, the book cover itself hits the target at the heart of the book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Story and characters did not hold my attention I couldn't sink my teeth into the story Too haphazard! At the end I was left with small snippets of nothing
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
superbellman More than 1 year ago
Proof of what I though of Flamethrowers is that my next book purchase was Telex from Havana the other book by RK which I also enjoyed. Flamethrowers has a historical and political basis which ties the action and romantic parts of the story together. The historical parts I researched were found to be accurate. The character depth was good and you had to believe she had first hand experience of the situations she described. One reviewer criticized the large number of characters but I didn’t think this was a problem, in this book but there are a ton of characters in Telex . A large number of characters can be conquered with a little organized note taking which I always do anyway. Really liked the book and would recommend it.
kalevala More than 1 year ago
Traces life of young woman, her romance with an older Italian Minimalist artist and the story of his Italian Motorcycle Empire family in Northern Europe. Sounds kind of strange by the motorcycle hub works. Includes the New York City art scene, motorcycle racing, radical groups in NYC and in Italy. I found this a different type of book. Sometimes a bit confusing and slow. but i can see why it was nominated for a book award. A young woman's Odyssey from the west coast to NYC to Northern Italy.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Tcasscros More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It covers the NYC revolutionary sub-culture in a thoughtful and often very humorous way. Sharp writing and story telling.