(As originally published in The Stranger, May 26, 2013.)
While the rest of us were out doing normal, non-geniusy things like shopping for bath salts or watching reruns of Freaky Eaters, Rachel Kushner went and resurrected a story we thought had been told to death: the novel about the young artist who moves to the big city. What’s worse is that somehow this new book is even better—clearer, sharper, funnier, sexier—than her last novel, 2008’s National Book Award–nominated Telex From Cuba. It’s called The Flamethrowers, and it’s about motorcycles, art, slave labor, both world wars, land-speed records, cinema, language, and all the different kinds of revolution that there are. It behaves like a play, thundering along in three acts—the first act is set in New York, the second in Italy, the third returning to New York—and it is powered by prose so gorgeous it cannot be represented here with any justice (though I will try).
In the summer of 1975, a young woman who goes by the nickname Reno moves from Nevada to New York with the vague idea of breaking into the art scene. She is miserably lonely at first, and her loneliness heightens her formidable perceptive powers as she watches from the fire escape of her Little Italy apartment: Smoke bombs on the Fourth of July become “concentrated dye blooming through water,” and the “long, wispy antennae” of a smashed cockroach on a sidewalk are seen “swiping around for signs of its own life.” She sleeps with the windows wide open and calls disconnected numbers more than once.
Soon, though, she finds herself in love with a handsome, wealthy artist 14 years her senior, a man named Sandro Valera. His family is rich in an extremely Italian way: His father designed motorcycles, founded the Valera tire company, turned Brazilian natives into slaves for their rubber, and posed for a photograph with Mussolini. Clinging to Valera’s arm, Reno gains a small place in the company of artists and anarchists who inhabit the Lower East Side. They are born performers, and their conversations are wild, joyful, intoxicating lies. Some of them are likable in their deception; others inspire intense hatred by pretending that lying is the same as protecting. Bizarre gallery exhibits are attended, sad dinner parties are thrown. One of the older artists delivers a bombastic monologue on language via tape recorder, and when he later bursts into tears, his wife chides him for devaluing the tear.
In conversation with these kinds of people, Reno learns how to be a good audience: “You pretended you knew, or didn’t need to know. Asking an obvious question, even if there were no obvious answer, was a way of indicating to them that they should jettison you as soon as they could.” She escapes first to the Bonneville Salt Flats, where the horizon is “a raw and saturated blue that seemed cut from an inner wedge of sky,” and then to Italy, where Sandro breaks her heart in spectacular fashion against the backdrop of the Red Brigades’ revolution.
Kushner’s prose is exhilarating. It is alive with a steady, even, liquid electricity distilled from hundreds of densely packed, vivid descriptions. She can be wickedly funny, using humor to puncture the balloon between stereotypes and real people: “She left with [the street artist] Henri-Jean, who shrugged as they passed [the failed artist] Burdmoore. A mime’s shrug. Life is sweet, I’m a helpless neuter. Whimsy is the answer to tears. I’m going to fuck your girlfriend here shortly. Shrug.” In fine, cutting prose, she shows us the difference between aesthetic and political upheaval: The graffiti of New York is bright and colorful, but the graffiti of San Lorenzo is just stark black words on gray concrete. One is art without a message; the other is pure message tinged with danger, just raw suffering scrawled on whatever blank space is available. Her story turns on these juxtapositions, and would be fine social commentary even if her writing weren’t so beautiful. But it is, and reading it feels like plunging in a glass elevator from the top floor of a hotel to the bottom of the ocean, or like being submerged in a neon dream: hyperreal colors and needle-sharp insights, conversations eerie in their psychological accuracy, memories deep and bright as open sky.