Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is a complex, well-written, interesting, energetic sort of book that pulls in threads from all over the place and somehow manages to weave them all together into a coherent story. But be warned, it is one of those sorts of stories that doesn’t have a definite ending. There’s an ending, but it’s not the kind that wraps everything up, it’s more like the sort that gathers together a few of the main threads to a place from which the story could leap out again and keep going.
The book gets started with two stories. First we are thrown into the midst of Italy during WWI and a man named Valera salvaging a headlamp from the motorcycle of his fallen comrade and then whacking a German soldier over the head with it and killing him. We later learn that Valera becomes a wealthy man, head of a company that makes motorcycles and tires.
Next it’s 1975 and we are riding a Moto Valera motorcycle to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah where Reno, our narrator so-called because she grew up in Reno, is planning on riding the motorcycle in a time trial as an art project. Reno, aged about twenty-one, moved to New York to become an artist. She is interested in speed and motorcycles and her boyfriend happens to be Sandro Valera, youngest son of the Valera we meet in the first chapter. But Sandro is an artist and doesn’t want to have anything to do with his family. Pushed into it by his best friend Ronnie, Sandro agrees to get Reno the newest, fastest version of the Moto Valera. During her run across the salt flats, Reno makes it up over 140 mph, gets hit by a gust of wind and crashes. She survives with only minor injuries, is adopted by the Valera team who is there from Italy so Didi Bombonato can break the world land speed record. Events conspire to keep that from happening but Reno ends up getting to drive his car and finds herself holding the land speed record for women.
Back in New York she is rightly proud of herself but Sandro can only scowl because the Valera team has invited Reno to visit Italy and make some publicity appearances. Again Ronnie pushes Sandro and gets him to reluctantly agree to take Reno to Italy. The trip ends up being a disaster in so many ways –snobby family, betrayal, riots and kidnappings. And then it’s back to New York and the art scene where some of the repercussions of Italy continue to reverberate.
In some ways this is a coming of age story. Reno is young and inexperienced and sometimes seems to just go along because she doesn’t know what else to do. But she isn’t stupid. She’s a keen observer. Before Reno became interested in art and motorcycles she was a competitive skier. Sandro gives her a hard time after dinner in Italy one evening for letting an egotistical novelist who hadn’t skied in decades tell her about the right way to sky. But as Reno says,
Sandro didn’t understand why I let this old man go on at length as if I’d never been on skis, but my experience had nothing to do with Chesil Jones. It wouldn’t have interested him one bit. He didn’t bring up skiing to have a conversation, but to lecture and instruct. I’d seen right away he was the type of person who grows deadly bored if disrupted from his plan to talk about himself, and I had no desire to waste my time and energy forcing on him what he would only will away in yawns and distracted looks.
There is a lot of this kind of behavior from men in the novel. Even Sandro himself while encouraging Reno and her artistic aspirations manages to belittle her at the same time. Late in the book Reno comments why she liked one of the radicals she fell in with while in Italy:
I’d been listening to men talk since I arrived in New York City. That’s what men liked to do. Talk. Profess like experts. When one finally came along who didn’t say much, I listened.
Even though this is a coming of age story and Reno definitely gains much in the way of experience during the telling, there comes in that unsettled ending. She’s definitely changed from the beginning of the book. She recognizes that the answers she had been waiting for to the questions that had been governing her were not going to come. She understands she needs to stop waiting and move on to the next question. But while she may be moving on, we are not left with the impression that she will be more active in her search for answers, that she will do anything other than wait. Then again, perhaps she will eventually take charge of her life instead of drifting from one experience to another.
The critic James Woods suggests The Flamethrowers is a contemporary rewriting of Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. I haven’t read Flaubert’s book so I can’t agree or disagree. But I agree when Woods calls the book vibrant and “brilliantly alive.” The Flamethrowers is only Kushner’s second book and it is not perfect. It is, however, an enjoyable, well told story that makes me excited to see where Kushner goes in the future.