Rachel Kushner chooses an ingenuous, yet daring, young protagonist – dubbed Reno – for her hypnotizing second novel, “The Flamethrowers.”
“I come from reckless, unsentimental people,” Reno warns early on in the book – while hurtling, at breakneck speed, toward even more reckless, unsentimental people, stopping only to mention that she is “shopping for experience.”
It is a heady ride, from coast to coast and across the pond, with stops on the killing fields of World War I but with most of the action taking place in and around the Manhattan art world of the 1970s.
Yet, and this should be said straightaway: It isn’t Reno who fascinates here (despite her thirst for experience and passion for speed, be it on skis or a motorcycle or whatever in the world goes fast, fast, fast). No. It is Kushner – with her pitch-perfect depictions of time and place, her strong dialogue, her sense of travel, in actuality and in life.
Reno, and those along Reno’s path, are but vehicles here for Kushner’s own artistry, for her stories, one after the other – tale after tale and tales-within-tales, vignette upon vignette, endless, unstoppable, riveting. Kushner’s Reno merely grounds them, holding each in place just long enough for us to read it. This is quite an achievement, equaled only by Kushner’s ability to make everything feel real. (Think of a marriage between Jack Kerouac and Jane Smiley.)
“I’d thought this was how artists moved to New York, alone, that the city was a mecca of individual points, longings, all merging into one great light-pulsing mesh, and you simply found your pulse, your place,” Reno muses toward the start of the book, recalling the night the course of her 20s was – literally – set in motion:
“What occurred did so because I was open to it, and not because fate and I met at a certain angle. I had plenty of time to think about this later. I thought about it so much that the events of that evening sometimes ran along under my mood like a secret river, in the way that all buried truths rushed along quietly in some hidden place.”
Kushner’s Reno – so called as she is from Nevada – is wide-eyed and guileless when she first encounters post-’60s Manhattan, and in particular its art scene, Warhol’s influence waning, the “artists” Reno meets more talk than talent, more than one of them given to fabrication.
“Is he telling the truth?” Reno asks her new lover, Sandro, of his inscrutable friend Ronnie. “He’s complicated,” Sandro replies. “You have to listen closely. He’ll say something perfectly true and it’s meaningless. Then he makes something up, but it has value. He’s telling you something.”
Sandro, not above duplicity himself, is Sandro Valera of the famed Valera motorcycle and rubber-manufacturing family in Italy – a good 15 years older than Reno, and working in New York as an artist (or let’s say someone who conceptualizes empty aluminum boxes that are subsequently made, not by Sandro, but in a factory).
It is Sandro’s late father, a leitmotif throughout the book, who supplies its title – serving, during World War I, with the motorcycle battalion, the Arditi (“to dare”), a group known for its fierceness and use of flamethrowers. And it is Sandro who, although essentially estranged from his family, arranges delivery of a new, top-of-the-line Moto Valera to Reno – to allow her to pursue a lifelong dream of participating in the land-speed trials over Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats.
“You don’t have to immediately become an artist,” Sandro counsels her before she leaves New York for the sand flats. “You have the luxury of time. You’re young. Young people are doing something even when they’re doing nothing. A young woman is a conduit. All she has to do is exist.” (There is a ’70s undertone of sexism throughout “The Flamethrowers,” the attitude blatant when the elder Valera is quoted – still another offering of verisimilitude from Kushner.)
Reno reaches 148 mph on the salt flats, telling us in Kushner’s flowing prose: “I was in an acute case of the present tense. Nothing mattered but the milliseconds of life at that speed. Far ahead of me, the salt flats and mountains conspired into one puddled vortex. I began to feel the size of this place. Or perhaps I did not feel it, but the cycle, whose tires marked its size with each turn, did. I felt a tenderness for them, speeding along under me.”
Reno will crash, heal and return to Sandro and New York where she is now part of an unreliable cadre of souls including Ronnie of the lies – who has given himself the “fake mandate to photograph every living person” – and the wonderfully named Giddle who is slightly older than Reno, fresh from the Warhol factory, a waitress, actress, shoplifter and sometimes stealer of boyfriends (who grew up in Rochester).
It is Giddle who sorts reality from pretense, telling Reno about a suspicious waitress who admits to Giddle she is actually a sociologist gathering data. “So it’s like a performance, Giddle had said to the woman. You’re performing the role of a waitress … The woman insisted, No, it’s sociology … I infiltrate to study this world.‘But that is performance,’ Giddle (says). She was performing, as a real but not actual waitress …”
Taken with Sandro (and, later in the book, his fearsome mother), Reno, Ronnie and Giddle are incipient flamethrowers themselves – with the same potential to disrupt and to harm, which they will do, over time, in their self-absorbed and cavalier ways. Reno’s naiveté is necessary here: It lets us see clearly, showing itself in the end as but another deadly weapon.
Sandro, Reno observes, “had a way of talking about our courtship that presumed there was a choice to it. Perhaps this was simply a difference between us. I did not experience love as a choice, ‘I think I will love this or that person.’ If there was no imperative, it was not love. But Sandro spoke as if he’d seen me on the street and simply made his selection.”
Which, of course, is exactly what happened. It was his way – particularly with American girls. As his mother will ask, in Reno’s presence, “How many have we met, at this point?” – later furthering her point to Sandro: “You bring them to place between you and your life.”
By now, Sandro and Reno are staying at the sumptuous Valera villa above Bellagio and when he, true to form, betrays Reno she bolts, accepting a ride to Rome where she finds herself in the bosom of the Red Brigades, a guerrilla group intent on sabotaging such capitalist entities as the Valera empire.
Kushner rushes the novel here, plunging Reno almost immediately into a life-altering situation that clearly renders her complicit in a violent act against the Valeras. This passes in a blur, and is not revisited in the book – a fault in the plot.
But the plot doesn’t matter in the grand scheme here. (Neither do Kushner’s characters – as intriguing and unforgettable as they are). What matters is Kushner. The girl can WRITE – and we are already yearning for the next offering from her remarkable imagination.
By Rachel Kushner
383 pages, $26.99
Karen Brady is a retired Buffalo News columnist.