The author of ‘Telex From Cuba’ (2008) now sees her sophomore effort, ‘The Flamethrowers,’ as a 2013 National Book Award Finalist; her second go-round as a finalist in as many efforts (if you’re keeping score). While book awards are not always indicative of artistic merit, ‘The Flamethrowers’ is impossible to miss. Kushner weaves wonderfully fantastic elements together to create an undeniably absorbing novel.
‘Flamethrowers’ is a sprawling but concise tale of art, motorcycle racing, and political upheaval in 1970s New York and Italy and Kushner manages to cover a lot of ground (both ideologically and historically) in very textured but also very light prose. Kushner’s medium for conveying such heady subjective ideas about art, culture, and socio-political class as well as razor-sharp social observation is protagonist, Reno; – so-called because she hails from Reno, Nevada. The novel begins with Reno’s motorcycle trip on a new Valero bike en route to the speed trials at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah where she plans to race and photograph. It is here, that Kushner introduces speed as a central theme of her novel. “An acute case of the present tense,” Reno spent her childhood ski-racing, her recent years riding motorcycles, and has come to Bonneville to race only against time. Considering Reno’s objective, fast as she can on a straight-line trajectory, the route to go straight was a winding road.
After graduating from art college Reno moved to New York City, intent on ‘making the scene’ as a photo artist. What she found was isolation. The isolation is in stark contrast to the oneness Reno feels as she gracefully careens down the road on her motorcycle in that it is a curious, almost nervous isolation of wanting to become a part of something. When she is eventually ‘picked up’ by a group, she begins to wade slowly into the chaotic movement before plunging to the center of it all when she meets and falls for Sandro Valero, a wealthy sculptor and darling of the New York art world. Interestingly, as Reno becomes centrally placed in the scene she so desperately sought, she remains an outsider. As the novel develops, we see that Reno’s sense of estrangement comes not from a lack of artistic voice, but rather a lack of erudite artistic snobbery and hubris. Reno is a practical woman, an intelligent woman, and a somewhat guarded woman.
It is Reno’s relationship with Sandro – scion of one of Italy’s most powerful families – that puts her on a Valero bike at the Bonneville speed trials. Kushner beautifully interweaves Reno’s story with the tale of the Valero family and their rise to Italian prominence. The author’s incredible achievement is that none of her anecdotes become superfluous. The weight of the Valero family is felt throughout the latter half of the novel when Sandro and Reno travel to Italy. Even as Reno tries to escape Sandro, she finds herself riding on a super highway – the ‘main artery’ – that was constructed by the Valero family. As Kushner explores the political upheaval of the working class in 1970s Italy, she smartly juxtaposes Reno’s own working-class sensibilities with the detached elitism of Sandro’s family, his mother in particular, at the family’s opulent country home.
It is in these moments where Kushner produces some of the finest prose in recent memory. Intelligent but un-moneyed, Reno’s observations of the aristocratic wealthy and their behavior alongside the unseen and unheard servants is nothing short of brilliant. At times, one feels the need to shut the book and simply walk away for a few minutes to absorb – some of her sentences are that dazzling.
‘The Flamethrowers’ is proof that a novel exploring massive themes such as art, politics, and social class does not have to make the choice between style or substance. Kushner has clearly chosen both and fits a staggering amount of heady substance into a steel, riveted, and polished box of minimalism.
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