May Meetup- The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

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.”

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  • Scott P

    Is there a chance for a reschedule?

    May 29

  • Kameaka G.

    Hi, what is the book for next month?

    May 27

  • A former member
    A former member

    Hey! Sorry I missed this one - did you guys manage to meet up somewhere? How was it? :)

    May 26

  • patti j.

    Sorry guys- when I called they told me no trivia tonight. That sucks.

    May 25

  • Kathleen

    Is anyone here? It doesn't seem like it will work for book club since they are doing trivia

    May 25

    • Kathleen

      Shoot, didn't see this before I left. I guess i didn't read the whole book anyway.

      May 25

    • Scott P

      I finished the last 1/3 today...

      May 25

  • Caitlin

    Sorry guys! I wasn't able to make it through the whole book and have dinner plans. Have fun! See you next month

    May 25

  • patti j.

    We will be at home sly e tonight but we can do sweet Caroline's next month.

    May 25

  • Scott P

    Any idea for location yet? I saw you all met a but back at Sweet Caroline's. I haven't ever met a group there, but the dinner and drinks are good. Just a suggestion. [And my ulterior motive is that it is close to my house.]

    May 25

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