Speed, Revolution and Growing Up

The Flame Throwers 
by Rachel Kushner

The set pieces are wonderful. Reno speeding through the salt pans on her Valera bike, pushing the limits; the blackout in New York and Reno walking the streets observing the darker side of New Yorkers; Rome in revolutionary mode, students protesting against the government and Reno again the observer, watching what it is to be on the other side of privilege.There are more. Descriptive, poetic, alive. It’s the pieces in between that are a bit more problematic.

“Enchantment means to want something and also to know, somewhere inside yourself, not an obvious place, that you aren’t going to get it.” So thinks the 23 year unnamed narrator we only know as Reno, a name given to her because that’s the place she comes from. It’s the seventies and Reno is a very young, impressionable ‘land artist’ - someone who creates art on land, photographing the speed lines her bike makes on salt. She is also ‘enchanted’ - by the New York art world she hopes to enter, by Ronnie and Sandro and Giddle, by all the ‘artists’ she meets, people who call themselves artists by just carrying around a long stick wherever they go, by sticking their vagina into a hole where people can put their fingers into. It’s a strange, insular New York world, described with what one hopes is more irony than fascination. It’s a difficult world a speed addict and artist from the West could hope to enter. And even as Reno enters it, sleeping with and losing her heart and soul to first Ronnie and then Sandro, she is forever conscious of being the outsider, the observer. A bit like Nick in Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.

She is again the observer in Sandro’s Italian home, of privilege and wealth. Sandro Valera of the Valera motorcycle and tyres fame returns to the home he has run away from, with Reno in tow. Ostensibly to be with Reno as she takes part in a motorcycle race. But the race never happens. Instead Reno is witness to revolution first hand. She is exposed to the privileged world Sandro has pushed himself away from - of dressing for dinner, of swimming pooled houses, of Sandro’s snarky mother and her writer friend, of a brother who is fighting to keep the Valera business and a way of life going in the midst of student protests and left wing violence. And in this privileged world, as Reno experiences betrayal and heartbreak, it sends her fleeing to the other end of the spectrum. She wanders through a Rome in the midst of revolution, gets in with the protesters, even helps one flee the country.

There is a lot more in the book than just Reno. There is the history of the Valera fortune; a back story of Sandro’s father, his love for bikes, the tyre empire he built with slave labour in Brazil, his wartime experiences.But these are almost fillers and we are forever wanting to come back to Reno and her story.
Reno had started off wanting to live experiences. By the end of the book, she has lived through a lifetime of them in a few short months. Yet, there is a remote, almost detached quality to living them. It is as if you never know Reno totally. You see what she goes through vividly, almost as if you are watching a film - the thrill of the speed, the darkness of a blacked-out New York, the chaos of protests in the street. But the heartbreak and betrayal and guilt do not touch you. There is cleverness and poetry in the language, historical authenticity in the plot. But what lives with you are the set pieces. Not the characters, not the emotion. The Flamethrowers is lovely in a way. But it could have been so much more.  


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