Art, Motorcycles, and the Red Brigades: Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers” (2013)


This is Rachel Kushner’s second novel, which was a 2013 National Book Award finalist and a New York Times bestseller and Notable Book.  Her first was Telex from Cuba (2008), which was also a New York Times bestseller.  It was also nominated for a National Book Award and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and won a California Book Award.

Rachel Kushner

Born in Oregon, Kushner moved with her family to Northern California at age 11. She did her undergraduate studies at the University of California at Berkeley and subsequently earned an MFA at Columbia University in 2000.  She stayed in New York, where she worked as an editor at Grand Street and BOMB until 2008.  Now living in Los Angeles, she is an editor in the Office of Special Plans at Soft Targets, the Brooklyn-based art journal.

In The Flamethrowers, Kushner tells the story of Reno, a young art school student with a love for fast motorcycles and a desire to use them to make art.  After graduation, she travels from Nevada to New York City to pursue this desire.  Living in the East Village of the mid-to-late 1970s, Reno befriends various eccentric, colorful, and imaginative figures in the New York art scene, some of whom are also involved in an anarchist group known as the Motherfuckers.  She also meets Sandro Valera, an established artist who is also the son of an Italian tire and motorcycle magnate.  Through Sandro, she finds the opportunity to capture the speed of her motorcycle in visual art,  However, she also begins a relationship with him that will eventually place her in the midst of the “opposing extremists” of the late “Years of Lead” in Italy and force her to choose between them.

It is difficult for a plot summary to capture the fast pace and complexity of The Flamethrowers.  As it is a work of historical fiction, Kushner’s novel also includes narrative threads that explore the backstory of its settings and characters, including the New York art scene, Italy, World War II, and Sandro’s family.  Although flamethrowers literally play a part in the plot, the title also refers figuratively to the destructive nature of the conceptual aesthetics and radical politics of the period.

On a personal, reader-response level, I enjoyed Kushner’s description of New York City in the 1970s, particularly her rendition of the landscape and characters of the East Village.  I lived in the Village in the mid-to-late 80s, so I appreciated the opportunity to compare and contrast my memories of those days with the novel’s depiction of the same locations a decade earlier.  I moved into an East Village apartment a block away from Tompkins Square over the two days in 1988 when a battle raged between police and squatters of various types whom they were trying to remove from the park.  If only the Motherfuckers had been there.

[Reposted (with revisions) from FRISCO KID’s other blog]