“The Flamethrowers” by Rachel Kushner, a Rising Literary Star

“The Flamethrowers” by Rachel Kushner  (2013) – 383 pages


The difference between good writing and bad writing is really quite simple.  With bad writing, you keep waiting to reach your intended stopping point.  With good writing, you are so captivated that you don’t even notice that you’ve read beyond your stopping point.  There are some writers that you realize early on have the dexterity and steadfastness to tell just about any story and hold your interest. The great strength of Rachel Kushner as a writer is that she can keep your attention.  Many times during “The Flamethrowers” I wanted to read just a few more pages.

The young woman, Reno, who narrates “The Flamethrowers” is not your typical female if there is such a thing.  The story  begins with our twenty-two year old heroine driving her Solo Valera motorcycle to the Bonneville Salt Flats near her hometown Reno, Nevada, in order to try to set the world land speed record for women.   Sandro Valera, grandson of the owner of the Valera Motorcycle Company in Milan, Italy, happens to be her boyfriend.  Both Sandro and our heroine who hereafter has the nickname ‘Reno’ are aspiring artists who live on the scene of the 1970s New York art world.   Later Reno returns to New York and Sandro.

Don’t read “The Flamethrowers”, if you are looking for a heartwarming sentimental family novel to read.  What you get here with “The Flamethrowers” is what its title implies.   These so-called artists of the New York art set are as unrestrained as can be, and with Reno and Sandro we are right in the middle of the social scene.

Much of “The Flamethrowers” takes place in Italy as well as in New York.

Fortunately “The Flamethrowers” is very little about the art, but instead it is about some of the wild eccentric people who made up the art crowd in the Seventies.   Yes, the Seventies were off-the-wall times, and those times are captured well here.   The writing is matter of fact, and that leads the reader to trust even the most outlandish of circumstances.  Kushner does not over-write and doesn’t overplay the emotions of a scene.  Thus you come to rely on her as an honest retailer of events.  Yet at the same time there can be fire in her words.

 “All you can do is involve yourself totally in your own life, your own moment…And when we feel pessimism crouching on our shoulder like a stinking vulture…we banish it, we smother it with optimism. We want, and our want kills doom. That is how we’ll take the future and occupy it like an empty warehouse. It’s an act of love, pure love. It isn’t prophecy. It’s hope.”

 Rachel Kushner is the real thing, a top-of-the-line literary novelist, and I suggest you start reading her soon.

4 responses to this post.

  1. I have been bouncing back and forth on whether to buy this one. I quite liked Kushner’s last novel and also like fiction about the art world (so I would want more rather than the less that appears to feature here). On balance, however, I think you have convinced me.


  2. Hi KFC,
    You are one of the few that read her first novel, ‘Telex from Cuba’. That book looks intriguing to me. We can expect more interesting novels from Kushner, because she has the basics of writing interesting sentences and paragraphs down better than a lot of young writers.


  3. Posted by acommonreaderuk on May 2, 2013 at 6:51 PM

    I’ve never read Kushner, but this book sounds intriguing. Stu of Winston’s Dad has just reviewed a book set in the 80s which he thinks of as a sort of “golden age”. My feeling is that the 70s were slightly better as the brashness and extravagant display of wealth hadn’t really taken hold. It will all seem like ancient history to the present generation of new readers


    • Hi Tom
      I think of the 1970s as the wild time before Thatcher and Reagan, the era of disco. People probably had the most personal freedom then, and we’ve sort of backed away from that since then. There haven’t been many books written about that era, so it is good to have “The Flamethrowers”.


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