by Rachel Kushner’s
383 pp. Scribner. $26.99
In “The Flamethrowers,” her frequently dazzling second novel, Rachel Kushner thrusts us into the white-hot center of the 1970s conceptual art world, motorcycle racing, upper-class Italy and the rampant kidnappings and terrorism that plagued it. It’s an irresistible, high-octane mix — and a departure from the steamier pleasures of her critically acclaimed first novel, “Telex From Cuba.” The language is equally gorgeous, however, and Kushner’s insights into place, society and the complicated rules of belonging, and unbelonging, can be mordantly brilliant. None of the characters in “The Flamethrowers” are quite what they seem, fabricating pasts as nonchalantly as they throw together their art. Above all, they hunger to be seen, to distinguish themselves from the ordinary. One artist, responding to the question of why he invents, defends his florid lies as “a form of discretion.”
Speed is another operative element in the novel; speed — “an acute case of the present tense” — and its necessary correlative, time. It’s the speed of the fastest motorcycles on the planet, the dizzying trajectories of artists in a capricious world, the precipitous rise and decline of fortunes, reputations, social status, sanity and, perhaps most acutely, love. It’s also about time slowed to the flip side of speed, to an utter, velvet stillness: “an operatic present, a pure present.”
At the heart of “The Flamethrowers” is Reno, a young artist from Nevada who, after a childhood of downhill skiing and racing dirt bikes, moves to New York with the vague idea of making it in the art world. “It was an irony but a fact that a person had to move to New York City first, to become an artist of the West.” She is beautiful, of course, and lonely, and not a little lost, spending the better part of her first Sundays in the city watching the chauffeured limousines of Mafia bosses, “lined up like bars of obsidian-black soap,” clogging the street in front of her Little Italy tenement. Reno is a modern Henry James heroine — a rough-riding Daisy Miller, say — who wanders far from home and submits to what turns out to be a very unsentimental education at the hands of reputed sophisticates.
After she catches the eye of Sandro Valera, an older Italian artist and estranged scion of a motorcycle-and-tires empire (he fashions high-sheen metal boxes popular in New York art circles), Reno’s life, predictably, heats up, at least on the surface. Their romance is interlarded with — and often hijacked by — the story of Sandro’s father, referred to throughout simply as Valera, as if there could be none other. A former radical and World War I veteran of a motorcycle assault battalion with the Arditi, famous for deploying flamethrowers against their enemies, Valera has journeyed to the pinnacle of social and economic success on the backs of the peons he virtually enslaves in the remote rubber tree forests of northwestern Brazil.
Kushner confidently manages huge swaths of politics and history, intersecting them with the personal lives of her characters, often through cultural or commercial motifs. And she draws interesting, wildly smart parallels between the cultural-political chaos of New York and Italy in the ’70s, with Little Italy serving as a distorted mirror of defunct Old World values. All the while, Kushner fearlessly tackles the bigger questions of what constitutes authenticity, voice, identity, class, pitting the aesthetics of wealth against the pragmatics of poverty. What, ultimately, can society afford, she seems to be asking in scene after scene. And where does art fit into the scheme of things? Are artists, as Sandro’s father contends, “those who are useless for anything else”? Or is their purpose closer to what Sandro believes: “Making art was really about the problem of the soul, of losing it. It was a technique for inhabiting the world. For not dissolving into it.”
It is too bad, then, that so much of the novel depends on the lovers, Sandro and Reno. Their romance, sadly, is a rather dyspeptic affair, mysterious in the way all love is mysterious — who knows what lies at the core of any connection? — but unsatisfying as either a May-December romance, a convenient careerist coupling or, for that matter, true love. There is minimal heat or magnetism between them, and no clue as to what sustains the couple besides the mild frisson of their differences — age, culture, class — and their vague concerns over what constitutes meaningful art. The two, essentially, are ciphers, more composites of intriguing characteristics than living, breathing individuals. Contributing to the malaise is the fact that the aspiring, even reckless Reno we glimpse in the early pages of the book bears little resemblance to the Reno who forgoes much of her own agency to stand by her man and be carried along by events, however dramatic, instead of pursuing her own agenda. Reno admits early on that she is capable of waiting: “To expect change to come from outside, to concentrate on the task of meeting it, waiting to meet it, rather than going out and finding it.” So is it wrong to anticipate more from this Western heroine?
The vivid specificity and authority Kushner demonstrates over the rest of her material saves the day. Her secondary characters, and especially her crowd scenes — whether it’s the chaos of a blackout in Times Square or the melee of a protest spiraling out of control in Rome — are meticulously rendered, giving us both the discrete and the aggregate experience with perfectly modulated precision. Kushner’s descriptions and skewering of the denizens of New York’s art world are particularly hilarious. In one scene, a dilettante named Gloria does a daylong performance piece in which she occupies a small, curtained booth within which waits her naked pelvis. “A sign invited people to Place Hand in Window.” Another artist does just that, lost to the musings of the gender differences in the phrase “to finger,” and brings the hapless Gloria to climax. “I should get one of those T-shirts that says orgasm donor,” the artist deadpans. Naturally, the married Gloria thinks she’s fallen in love with him.
Kushner doesn’t spare the Italian upper class either. Sandro’s mother, in particular, is deliciously depicted in her Bellagio villa as a frustrated, acid-tongued dowager. “She was in her 70s now, her complexion like wet flour, clammy and pale, with the exception of her nose, which had a curiously dark cast to it, a shadow of black under the thin tarp of skin, as if her nose had trapped the toxins from a lifetime of rich food and heavy wines.” Even Signora Valera’s egg-shaped French bulldog, Gorgonzola, whimpered “the way little dogs did, with needs that could not be met simply, with food and company.”
But the delights of Kushner’s writing cannot entirely compensate for the novel’s ultimate loss of momentum. This is due, in part, to the ill-fated couple’s unsurprising denouement, but it also results from the confusing sequencing in the last third of the book. While the narrative is meant, I believe, to achieve a kaleidoscopic 1970s effect, it succeeds more in draining the well-earned energy of preceding scenes with too much back story, superfluous events and overwrought explanations. Though Reno is pulled from the apex of Valera luxury to the epicenter of Italy’s revolutionary movement, her own feelings, self-effaced into the crowd, blockade us from a more intimate experience. “Enchantment,” Reno says, “means to want something and also to know somewhere inside yourself . . . that you aren’t going to get it.” That said, there is still plenty of enchantment to go around in this generous, ambitious and original novel.