The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner


This was reviewed favorably by Tony; the comment I recall was that the author’s writing was so good that he often read beyond the spot where he intended to stop. That was what I liked so much about this book too.

I listened to it over a long period of time as family was visiting for the month of June, including a highly entertaining 2 1/2 half year old grandson. On the occasions when I walked alone I was happy to fall back into the book and enjoy the writing, but I fear I didn’t fully appreciate the overall picture.

The narrator is a young woman who makes her way to New York to be an artist in the 1970s after finishing a degree in art at the University of Nevada. Her background is far from the typical middle class college student; she was a motorcycle riding tough who grew up with a couple of hard-working cousins. All this helps her struggle through the weirdness of the 1970s art scene and it is their weirdness, not their art that the book focuses on. She meets and quickly becomes the girlfriend of Sandro, the son of the founder of a manufacturer of tires and motorcycles in Italy. After a motorcycle race out west, she goes to Italy with Sandro and spends some very unhappy time with his family. A strike that turns into days of violence in Rome and later a night when the lights in New York went out gaves us a couple of extended descriptions of chaotic times.

The book begins with a bit of background with Sandro’s father during World War I when he was an Ardito, Italy’s ruthless shock troops who overran the trenches and fought hand-to-hand and used flamethrowers.The artists in New York were radical, but were gentle as kittens compared to Sandro’s father.

The quote below describes a night in New York and illustrates the author’s sense of fun and fine writing:

As we rode downtown, he [Ronny, a friend] was murmuring to Talia [Sandro’s Italian cousin] quietly in fake Italian taking an Italian suffix, adding it to every word and then repeating them.  “Andiamo in une taxidimo a Rudimiando’s con innuendo in taxidimo” and later “but I was focused
on Ronny and Talia, the way he was making her laugh, ‘taxidimo, innuendo’, pointing at a green and yellow Blimpie sign, ‘There, one of ours,’ her laughter penetrating his fake sincerity like carbination.

And later:

Listening to Stravinsky, harsh but stirring strings, sounds that were like stiff brushes dipped in paint and then used to make a geometry of lines in stark black.

The Flamethrowers is available UVa library, the public library, and Amazon.

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers, Scribner, 3013, 383 pages (I listened to the audiobook).

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