The Flamethrowers

by Rachel Kushner

Paperback, 2014

Call number





Scribner (2014), Edition: Reprint, 416 pages


The year is 1975 and Reno--so-called because of the place of her birth--has come to New York intent on turning her fascination with motorcycles and speed into art. Her arrival coincides with an explosion of activity in the art world--artists have colonized a deserted and industrial SoHo, are staging actions in the East Village, and are blurring the line between life and art. Reno meets a group of dreamers and raconteurs who submit her to a sentimental education of sorts. Ardent, vulnerable, and bold, she begins an affair with an artist named Sandro Valera, the semi-estranged scion of an Italian tire and motorcycle empire. When they visit Sandro's family home in Italy, Reno falls in with members of the radical movement that overtook Italy in the seventies. Betrayal sends her reeling into a clandestine undertow. - from cover p. [2]… (more)

User reviews

LibraryThing member lisapeet
I finished the last few pages standing just inside the library doors at 6:58 pm... well, almost timed that right.

I'm surprised more of my reading crew hasn't read this—I enjoyed it a lot, even though I didn't buy the monologues for a minute and it fell a bit flat toward the end and lost focus (which it didn't have a ton of to begin with). But this was a really fun ride, and its skewering of the NYC art scene of a Certain Time was right on and very funny. And a lot of the writing was just fabulous, very evocative and unclichéd.

One thing that was notable was the very strong feeling of detachment for such elaborately careful writing... a wrong-end-of-the-telescope sense of looking at the world. Not in a bad way, either, but interestingly arm's-length. Maybe it's the subject matter, I dunno. The book had a real swaggering bravado to it but I never felt all that invested. And at the same time I didn't mind, which speaks well, I think, to the general quality.
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LibraryThing member abealy
It’s always difficult to weave believable fiction around historic events and headlines. This is just as true with avant-garde art, no matter what era the story is embedded in. The history tends to lie like thin ice below the surface of the tale.

The Flamethrowers is a compelling story, written with confidence, but does not sit well in the historical context it has chosen to portray. It attempts to evoke the downtown New York art scene of the 70’s, the Futurists of Italy, before and during World War One and labor and student unrest in Italy, also during the 70’s. Only the scenes set in Rome ring true. The art world of 1970 New York is particularly shallow...even more than it really was! Actual art and events are lifted and given to her novel’s characters. There is no attempt to pass these characters as the real artists so grafting real events onto their stories does not ring true. Allen Ginsburg and Robert Smithson seem to be excessively maligned in the book.

Our hero, Reno, named after her Nevada home, comes to New York City in the bleak early years of the 70’s to make it in the art world. She makes some connections, goes to some parties, rides a Valera motorcycle (the family plays a large role in the book) and, basically, not much happens.

The book alters chapters of Reno in New York, with Valera in Italy at the outbreak of the First World War. Art serving the fascist state underlies this part of the story along with the making of the motorcycle company that will come to play a large role in Reno’s life 60 years later. Kushner writes strongest when she writes about actual events. The scenes set in the rubber plantations of Brazil are particularly compelling.
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LibraryThing member stillatim
Much of this book just isn't very good, indeed, it's quite bad. Much of this book is also great, not in the sense of 'very good,' but in the sense of Great American Novel. A more tech-savvy reviewer could insert a Venn diagram here, but I'm limited to words: there's too much overlap between the 'great' bits and the 'not good' bits. Really great Great Books manage to be both good (i.e., competent) and great (i.e., fascinating) at the same time, viz., Muriel Spark at her best. Failed great books are often great (ambitious, intellectually stimulating, timely but also timeless) just when they're also bad, viz., early Dostoevsky.

Since FT is meant to be great, I'm judging it next to later Dostoevsky, which is ridiculous, but also the only way to take the book as seriously as it wants to be taken.

So consider the atrocious banality that Kushner stoops to time after time (perhaps to perform the banality of the philosophy of time embedded in the novel): "time had stretched like taffy, the night a place we would tumble into and through together, a kind of gymnasium, a space of generous borders." "This was a different Italy from what I had experienced during my two semesters in Florence" (a phrase, or one like it, repeated ad nauseum, lest we forget the oft-stated fact that the narrator spent two semesters in Florence). "There is the woods, his cashmere scarf wrapped around my neck for extra warmth, I felt like everything was going to be okay" (just one of many passages that seem to have migrated from the 50 Shades of Grey side of the border). "I never would have guessed that nay of the bad news would have an impact on me" (migrated from undergraduate writing seminar; this kind of foreshadowing returns again and again, as in Helen DeWitt's 'Lightning Rods,' except in LR *it's satirical*, unlike this rubbish: "I wouldn't have guessed that his silence would be so effective. It grafted me in. To a way of proceeding. Of not knowing where we were going except someplace in Rome, not knowing where I would stay or what I would do").

That last sentence brings me to the lauded prose, dazzling, sexy, glorious, urgent, etc etc... It's just possible that I'm showing a real bias against American-style prose, which makes a mockery of my constant protestations that there's little difference between U.S. lit and other forms of it. But take the first paragraph of chapter four, of whose ten sentences all but one start "I [verb]", and the one that doesn't is one of those fake 'look at how literary this book is, following speech patterns and stuff' sentences ("...a way to make an impression on him. *Then I'll call.* I knew no one else..."). Now, there's a point to all this I'ing; it shows the narrator's loneliness. But much of the book is written in the same way, only with a different pronoun at the start of the sentences, or, at best, a concrete noun of some description. As the novel develops the writing improves, primarily because there's more dialogue and so fewer of these awful, sub-Hemingway sentences, as well as less reportage from the immensely boring and yet also implausible Reno. Which leads me to...

Verisimilitude, there is none (unlike unnecessary inverted word order)--Reno, just an aw-shucks girl from Nevada, does the following things in 2 years: moves to New York, sleeps with a famous artist despite not knowing his name; makes friends with a woman pretending to be a waitress who is really an artist living as a waitress for the sake of art (Sartre alert); gets picked up by a different famous artist who is friends with the first one and ends up living with him; sets the land-speed record for women; falls in with a group of Italian Autonomists; accidentally seduces their heroic leader; fails to help him escape across the border to France (not her fault); has the stunning intellectual insight that she needs to find an "open absence" and "move on to the next question." Which would be impressive if she had the looks of [insert your favorite movie star here], the intelligence of Hannah Arendt, the charisma of Ayn Rand, and the talents of both Virginia Woolf and Ai Miyazato. Unfortunately it is merely incredible. She really is just an aw-shucks girl from Nevada, with no discernible talents (though she can work a camera and motorbike), personality or attractions. Even that would be fine if

i) the sections of the book that focus on her were written in the third person, but they're in the first person, and there's very little indication that the implied author finds his/her narrator to be implausible or ridiculous in any way.
ii) she weren't set up as some kind of Greek Goddess who can, as I said, go at 300 miles an hour, slip easily between radically different groups of people, and effortlessly conquer the penises of men. All men.

Interlude: Alison Bechdel suggests that one way to judge books is to see whether female characters have conversations that are about something other than boys. This is the 'Bechdel Test', and it's both funny and smart. There needs to be another test, which I hereby name the 'Evans Test.' Here, you judge a book according to whether the main character can have a relationship with a man or woman (depending on which genitals they like the shape of) that is not sexual or romantic. Reno fails, despite the fact that she never actually hits on anyone. And speaking of the Bechdel test, the female characters are all either Reno, bitches or skanks, and if Kushner's first name was Robert, he'd be rightly consigned to hell by angry women readers. I'm not sure that Kushner herself will escape it.

Then there's the cliched intellectual sentiments--that the poor Italian proles are welcoming and genuinely live out their political beliefs (by giving Reno food, for instance; the value of ideas and politics in this book often boils down to whether they turn their holders into the kind of person who gives *HOT* young women whatever they want) whereas the New York artists are too cold and detached. Yes, the poor are wonderful, whereas the rich are unbearable. That is precisely the effect of poverty on people: it opens their hearts, makes them generous, inclines them to accept outsiders.

The book's 'X' motif is tiresome, beginning with the description of a photo in which a gun barrel is "one long half of the letter X", in other words, there is no X there at all, it's just a diagonal. Other examples: Reno and Sandro's first date is him fingering her and then him saving a drowning man, and these two events "crossed to form an X, and the X pinned us together"; Reno skis an X into a frozen pond and photographs it; a man encourages characters to watch a porn movie that's "Trippel X". Just in case you didn't notice, it's, like, sex and violence and art and stuff? And, like, growing up and coming to a crossroads about this stuff? And making your mark, like, knowing your place in the world and stuff?


Now, reboot, because there are some truly fantastic, wonderful things about this book. Kushner takes on the difficult task of writing a serious book about camp people. The clash between the 'authenticity' of futurism/bikes/speed/revolution and the fakeness of artfulness/art/irony is well drawn and not simplified--there are good characters who are sincere (Gianni), and good characters who are ironic (Ronnie). A couple of examples of this opposition playing itself out: Sandro chooses love, suggesting that he isn't really living it, whereas Reno doesn't experience "love as a choice," and requires "sincerity" from her friends/lovers. Sandro plays with guns and treats them like art, whereas the Autonomists use them as tools to defend themselves from fascists. You get the point. This is a serious, timely issue, that Kushner treats with great sensitivity and great intelligence.

There are terrific minor characters, too, particularly Chesil Jones, notable American novelist, who is pretty much embodied Mansplaining, and utterly hilarious. The aforementioned Ronnie, who tells endless nonsense tales about himself in order to tell us the truth rather than to hide it, is wonderful and very moving.

And so I came to the end of the book. Stream of consciousness. Verbless sentences, and pompous. Words posing as thought. Individuality? None. Rhythm? Negatively absent. How much longer? Time-lines of one man stand only so much. Revelation! Sad post-coital emptiness.

I will read everything that Kushner publishes from here out, in the desperate hope that she develops into the real thing; I would have felt the same way after reading, say, Joyce's Portrait of the Artist in 1916, another ridiculously self-important Bildungsroman, the ending of which ("When the soul of a man is born in this country there are nets flung at it to hold it back from flight. You talk to me of nationality, language, religion. I shall try to fly by those nets") I've come to read ironically just to save myself the pain of rolling my eyes too hard, although when younger I found it a call to arms. So I choose to read all that silliness about open absences and blah blah blah as Kushner showing us that Reno hasn't changed at all, and is still just a twit, whereas she, Kushner, has great things ahead of her.

Addendum: I just read a review in which Kushner described one of the aims of the book--to have her narrator perceived by the men and even women in the story as nothing other than a pretty little piece of tail, but have the reader see her depths more clearly. That's a pretty great idea, and does make me think better of what she was trying to do. On the other hand, I wonder if the task is just impossible: Reno's 'flat' outer life just isn't distinguishable, I think, from what Kushner intends to be her full inner life. Great idea, possibly impossible to execute well.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
Rachel Kushner is unique in that she is the only author ever to have her first 2 novels both nominated for the National Book Award. This was a very well written book in terms of the author's use of language. I enjoyed her creativity and some of the tangents her characters would go off on. She reminded me a little of Jim Harrison in her style. The story was interesting but I felt a detachment in the main character. Her inward dialogue(almost the entire book is told through her and in the first person) showed a gap between that how I think she was perceived by the other characters. I don't hold this against Kushner but I really did not like the artists in the New York 1970's art scene. Although reviews of the book made it sound like she was involved in the Italian youth revolution in the 70's it was just by circumstance and not by ideology. All in all this is a worthwhile read just for Kushner's prose and creativity. I will try to eventually read her first book but it can wait.… (more)
LibraryThing member slavenrm
As is usual, I received this book via a GoodReads giveaway. Despite that kind consideration, I'll proceed to say unkind things about it.

The novel simultaneously describes the lives of a young woman in 1977 and the man decades before who built the motorcycle she now rides about on as the roams through the avant garde art world of the day.

On the positive side, this book is a wonderfully written and carefully crafted piece of literature. The author has gone to great pains to weave together some really exceptional sentences. The march of words is precise and impressive...

... and unfortunately, seemingly endless. Kushner is a great writer but her story plods on laboriously and tediously for 400 pages without really accomplishing much.

In summary, I will simply end here because sometimes brevity is the true and right path to making a point. Wonderful writing but perhaps better broken into three or four books. A frightful and despairing trudge of a novel.
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LibraryThing member ljpower
To be honest, The Flame Throwers is not an easy book to read. It was difficult understanding the place of Reno in the setting of 1977 NYC artist community and perhaps this is intentional because that time and place was still developing. With the ego and narcissism of the community, Reno does not fit in its context. It is not until much later in the reading that I realized the depth of her passivity. In a time when women were finding their place in the world and having lived during this time, I cannot believe that she allowed herself to be so used by the people she trusted.. There is a hint of retribution for the reader at the end but I felt unfulfilled and thought that there should be more of an "Aha" moment. I do not question the skill in Kushner's writing. She is very accomplished and there are many moments when I was thoroughly engrossed. However, from my own perspective, I just could not believe in the character of Reno.… (more)
LibraryThing member strandbooks
I've spent over a month trying to tackle this book. I'm halfway through and I'm giving up. I can't connect with any of these characters. I don't understand their lifestyles or their motives. The one story line I like is about the older Valera, but it is such a minor part of the book that I can't get through it just to read more about him.… (more)
LibraryThing member 4daisies
Well, I have been reading this book for some time now, and still haven't managed to make my way though it. It is tedious and rambling. The idea of this book turns out to be much more interesting than the actual book itself. I was looking forward to reading about the New York art scene in the late seventies with a dash of European glamor thrown in. This just didn't deliver. Much better books keep drawing me away so I am finally going to give up.… (more)
LibraryThing member LaurenMae85
This was beautifully written, but the story itself was slow and downright dragged in places. The narrator seemed so detached from the events she described that it was hard to grasp any sort of depth of her character. Flamethrowers doesn't really shine because of the storytelling, but Kushner's talent still made this an overall enjoyable read.… (more)
LibraryThing member Laura400
The beginning was propulsive and stunning. Unforgettable. Unfortunately the rest of the novel doesn't live up to that, for me. But how many could write something like that? My advice is to pick up the book and read until the motorcycle wipes out. It's brilliant writing.
LibraryThing member scperryz
If I had not received a free copy in exchange for a LibraryThing review, I would not have finished this book, which frustrated and ultimately bored me. Kushner has the chops to be a spectacular writer and does a lot of stylistic muscle-flexing but all of the disparate components of this remained just that. Maybe I'm old-fashioned. I liked the components but I wanted a fusion of pieces that would make the whole hang together. Instead, every time that story momentum started to build, or I started to get into a character or relationship, I got thrown out and had to slog through exposition for its own sake, and too many pontificating characters. Perhaps my negative reaction would have been less pronounced if the cover quote had not proclaimed her "one of the most brilliant writers of the new century." That quote raised expectations that this book never remotely came close to meeting.… (more)
LibraryThing member kekmrs
In one word this book is gritty. Even the descriptions are gritty. Reno, the main character so-called because that is where she is from goes to New York sometime between 1975-1976. The novel takes place over two years and individual dates are not that important. Reno wants to create art through film. While she finds a job has a skin tone girl she experiences the characters running through Soho during this time. Now this is New York before gentrification when Times Square had XXX movie theaters and muggings were normal. This is not pretty uptown Broadway New York with carriage rides through Central Park.

Reno meets up with some minimalist artists. She has a relationship with one Sandro Valera, who is from Italy and whose family owns a motorcycle and tire factory. She goes to Italy and ends up among the Red Brigades before returning to New York alone. Her two years as told in this novel are not pretty. This is the make believe world of up and coming art. The galleries are the ones in Chelsea. This is new, experimental art. Experience matters more than talent and sex trumps everything.

Reno experiences many thrills in this novel. She races and meets all sorts of characters, but there is no love. I am sure that this was Rachel Kushner intention. She wants the reader to experience all the newness and uncertainty that Reno does and so emotions are left out of many human equations in this novel.
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LibraryThing member bayleaf
I thought I'd written a review of this book, but perhaps I didn't write one with the required number of words. Anyway.....It's about art, motorcycles, and radicalism in the 70s and a young woman's search for self identity. A perfect draw for someone like me and I was excited to get a copy to read. The story is compelling and the men, women and their interactions very accurately drawn and apropos of the decade. I've also heard great things about her earlier book, Telex from Cuba, which will go on my To Read list.… (more)
LibraryThing member jazznoir
Rachel Kushner's overreaching novel, The Flamethrowers, is a story of a motorcycle girl from Nevada. Though she is an artist obsessed with conceptualizing speed and movement, she acts passively in her surroundings, remaining anonymous as historic events and people stream around her. She is only an object in contrast. Lost among people, her mantra of "Maybe tomorrow. Maybe never. Maybe, " causes her to be constantly idle.

The book itself is much like the main character. It veers from place to place, but never goes anywhere.

Shifting between Utah, Italy and New York during the 1970s, Kushner establishes a strong sense of place due to her detailed and poetic descriptions of local flavors, fragrances and images. She peppers the story with pop culture references and bohemian product placements from the era. At times, her nostalgic shorthand is a bit too perfect and becomes problematic when her fictitious SoHo radicals meet-up with real celebrities. One can only wince at her caricatures of Iggy Pop and Allen Ginsberg.

As the story unravels, characters become rather ordinary and the latent heaviness which shrouds the novel begins to get tiresome.

Near the conclusion, New York rioters blow their neighborhood to smithereens as The Red Brigades wave their brightly colored flags through the streets of Italy. Revolt and disillusionment are one of the many themes of the book. As the cities burn, the protagonist continues to be sidetracked by various charming intellectuals and their geopolitical gestures -- life lessons, however, are never learned, connections are never made, and, finally, her story fizzles out.
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LibraryThing member mkboylan
[The Flamethrowers] by [[Rachel Kushner]]

I've enjoyed reading stories of revolutionaries that trace their path to action. This has often been neighborhood, family, economic paths to realization of inequity in the reigning political system. This story might instead be called The Accidental Revolutionary. The story takes place at the great salt flats in Utah where a land speed record is set by a woman, accidentally. Her boyfriend where she lives in New York City, is Italian, an heir to an Italian motorcycle dynasty (interesting concept). They are part of the community of artists in NYC. When she travels to Italy with him, she ends up taking part in a labor revolutionary action, also accidentally. There is certainly a Great Gatsby side of the story. Mostly, for me, I just enjoyed spending time with these characters in these different settings and learning a little about their worlds. I wasn't very taken with the characters, but I did enjoy the book and will definitely go back and read Kushner's previous book, [[Telex from Cuba]].… (more)
LibraryThing member bookmagic
I ended up DNF'ing this book after about 100 pages. I really wanted to like this book as the reviews have been great. But as with a previous book of Kushner's, Telex From Cuba, I find I can only get so far before giving up. The story of Reno seemed interesting, but the alternate chapters about the Valera family were so boring. And Reno's story just didn't move fast enough. Maybe someday I will pick this back up and just start in the middle of the book and see if it is more enjoyable that way. But not anytime soon, there are too many other books that captivate me much sooner.… (more)
LibraryThing member goodinthestacks
Set in the 1970s, "The Flamethrowers" by Rachel Kusher follows Reno, named so for her place of birth. Reno, an avid motorcycle rider and aspiring artist, travels to New York, then Italy, where she falls in with members of the radical movement. I enjoyed the character of Reno, but the book was a slow read.
LibraryThing member rayski
The book mostly takes place in the late 60s and early 70s, paralleling turbulent times in NYC and Italy. The main character is a woman, Reno, who drifts from place to place, making thin friendships along the way rarely throwing herself all in. Even her live-in relationship with an Italian aristocrat artist living in NYC is without emotion. She is more an observer than a participant which serves Kushner well as the real story is about the Haves and Have Nots.

We attend a dinner party with the Have Nots who give you their view on what's wrong with the world and why socialism is good for all. Later we see the other angle as Reno stays with the Haves who look down on most and believe they are right from taking from the less privileged and treating them as a step up from a wild animal. It's an interesting contrast and leaves you disliking both sides.

Although the plot is a good premise for a book it is a bit painful to read. Kushner writes very well, but takes a long time to get there. The dinner party with the lower class goes on forever to make her points. The time at the villa with the upper crust was a little better written as it covered more time and more events to get to her point, but still even that dragged a bit.

Good story plot just tries your patience a bit.
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LibraryThing member DuffDaddy
When I read the synopsis of The Flame Throwers before requesting it from Early Reviewer program, I thought i couldn't go wrong. A motorcycle girl who spends time in New York City and Milan - what could go wrong? Unfortunately, the novel did not live up to my expectations.

Overall, the book is not cohesive and the characters are not fully developed. Individual episodes are well-written and interesting, but when placed together they didn't do anything for the unity of the book. Also, many of the characters lacked substance and seemed like one-sided, stock characters.

I enjoyed the Bonneville Flats, Valera factory and riot episodes, but the entire novel fell flat. Maybe is should have been a series of related short stories....
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LibraryThing member gbelik
I found this novel to be unfocused for my taste. The setting moved from Reno to New York to Italy without centering itself anywhere. I did not really develop any empathy with our main character, an artist interested in motorcycles. I did like the connections made within the novel joining past and the present of the novel (late 70's). I think you might like this novel if you were interested in the art world of 1970's New York or the process of being an avant garde artist. I found some of the metaphors to be unfortunate ("....and blotted my face with a powder puff the size of a rat terrier." A rat terrier is way too smooth for facial fluffing; a shih-tzu would have done the job right).… (more)
LibraryThing member eenerd
Fascinating story set in the mid 1970's New York art scene, as well as the Italy of WWI and II as well as the western deserts of the U.S. Through the lives of Reno and Sandro, two lovers from comletely different worlds, we experience the complex relationship between family, life, history, and self-identity. Great read.
LibraryThing member gerconk
The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner was an interesting story about uprisings of labor, the relationships of love, and the confusion of living life itself. What makes this story different is that many of the characters are involved in motorcycles. In World War II, in the company that builds motorcycles, of the girl who loves to ride and her companions and lovers. The story takes place both in the United States and in Europe. It's an engrossing story but for me the ending fell flat. To have the girl standing at the foot of a mountain in a blizzard waiting for a man on skis who will probably never arrive? I asked myself, Why?… (more)
LibraryThing member camnini
There was some good writing here, and a few times I felt my interest picking up a bit, but I really disliked this book. I didn't like the NY artists and the Italian underground folks weren't very appealing either. Phew.
LibraryThing member alwright1
Incredibly well-written, some well-drawn characters (including the narrator Reno, who I enjoyed ambling after), at times very funny (also sometimes sad or depressing), but there were also some times when things really slowed down and I had a hard time not wanting to read ahead

Great look at New York in 1970s… (more)
LibraryThing member DougJ110
So well written, you can sense the mood, envision the surroundings and feel the vibrations of the characters. The twentieth century settings: the New York art scene and the worker protests in Italian, are described in a way that enlivens your imagination enough to think you know, exactly what it was like to have been there. It is a slice of life story that pulls you in and carries you with it.… (more)




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