The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner, Scribner, 2013, 383 pp
Rachel Kushner's new novel is perhaps too literary to appeal to some readers, but it is literary in the best way. Her first novel, Telex From Cuba, addressed the Cuban Revolution primarily through the eyes of American businessmen and their families living in Cuba. In The Flamethrowers, revolution in terms of workers uprisings in 1970s Italy, works as a comparison to the decline of industry in America seen through the eyes of avant-garde artists in New York City.
Political and sociological change is always complicated. Kushner treats these complications with a subtlety that can demand more than a reader looking for a good story may want to invest.
Then there is Reno, an aspiring artist in her early 20s, nicknamed after her hometown. She is a complex character, raised among working class people, who gets off on speeding motorcycles and danger but lacks self esteem and an ability to stand up for herself when dealing with men and older people in the art world.
Despite my frustration as a reader with Reno's passivity, she became for me one of the more interesting protagonists I have met in fiction so far this year. During her time in New York City, as she hooked up with one dubious character after another, I kept thinking of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe in Just Kids. Reno, however, lacks any sort of moral compass. She is just adrift and goes along with whomever she is hanging around, having a bad time and being distracted from her art.
Reno reminded me of myself. I was her age in the 1970s, trying to break free of a family and moral background I no longer believed in but clueless when it came to men; active but clueless. I am not certain that young women today realize how hard it still was back then to be taken seriously as an artist of any kind if you were female.
My personal take on this novel is a sense of amazement that a woman who is at least two decades younger than myself could capture what it was like in those years. When Reno finds herself at the end of the novel once again waiting for some man to give direction to her life and begins to awaken to the idea that she is going to have to find that direction within herself, I felt redeemed for all the hours I had spent reading about the miserable time she was having. Many women (and many artists) never have that awakening.
I admire Kushner for having made me wait so long. If all the scenes and characters and all the pages describing Reno's inner state, which is written about in exquisite prose, had not come before, the beginnings of change in Reno would have had no impact.
It seems like I have been reading many books lately where I don't see the reason for the plot until the end. If I had given up on these books after 100 pages, as I felt tempted to do, I would have missed so much. Not once was I sorry to have continued to spend my reading time and every one of these novels enriched me.
(The Flamethrowers is available in various formats by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)