The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner’s second novel, plays out many different canvases in the 1970s, from wide open spaces of the American West, to the tight bars and salons in New York to the political unrest consuming Italy. Kushner and The Flamethrowers may slide from one milieu to another, but the author and the book do so with surprising and graceful ease. Narrated by Reno, a young woman named for the city from which she came, The Flamethrowers is gifted by Kushner’s prose that often reads astonishingly agile for someone only two books into her career. She is a master of metaphor, cannily describing the salt flats of Utah in one chapter and then moving to a dingy New York bar in the next without missing a beat.

Reno may learn a thing or two about life by the book’s end, but there is much more at stake in The Flamethrowers. Kushner and her canny narrator have plenty to say about love, art, revolution, sex and scenesters. Reno, in her early twenties and sporting a fascination with motorcycles, has come to the Big Apple to turn this enchantment into art. Velocity is her drug of choice and although she can be quite naïve at times, Reno also has a perceptive eye, one that is further developed after falling in with a group of New York’s intelligentsia. It isn’t long before she begins a relationship with Sandro Valera, an older artist whose family owns an important motorcycle and tire company back in Italy.

When we first meet Reno, she is testing out an experimental art project on one of Valera’s motorcycles in the salt flats. She pushes the machine to almost 150 miles per hour, snapping photos all the while. Although she wrecks the bike and injures herself, Valera’s team is so impressed that they invite Reno to Italy as part of a promotional tour, calling her the fastest woman in the world. She goes, despite Sandro’s misgivings.

Italy is much different than New York, a place where people talk themselves to death. In Italy, the workers are revolting, rising up against big companies, including Valera. Reno finds more trouble than she bargained for as she is separated from her hosts and is swept up in the revolution. It’s not as sexy as it sounds and Kushner writes these sections in a sobering tone rather than idealizing the proletariat taking down the upper class.

Riveting in most passages, Kushner does get bogged down with some of her ideas here that make some parts a slog to get through. It makes sense because Reno is a thinker and some of her friends are blowhard artists, but when Kushner follows these threads, it feels untrue to the rest of the novel. Luckily, these moments are few and far between and the majority of The Flamethrowers is a pleasure to read.

Kushner also plays fast and loose with her plot, especially at the end. Reno’s involvement with the revolution leads to the kidnapping and eventual murder of one of Sandro’s brothers. In a book that has plenty to say about everything, Kushner and Reno become vague at the end, leaving the reader, like many of its characters, in complete darkness. Sometimes, that isn’t the worst place to be.

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