● The Flamethrowers
By Rachel Kushner
Scribner, 400 pgs, $26.99
In many ways, “The Flamethrowers,” Rachel Kushner’s novel about the historical, political, cultural and — most daringly — ideological chaos of the 1970s, is a simple bildungsroman.
It tracks the sentimental education of its heroine, Reno, from starry-eyed, eager youth, lusting after experience — her greatest assets her ambition and naivete — to weary, knowing connoisseur of what’s broken in the world and how it got that way. We ride on Reno’s back as she swims her way into the ’70s art scene, falling in with Sandro Valera, a minimalist interested in the “thingness of things,” and floating from party to party to bar to party, surrounded by everyone who’s anyone (the book namedrops art-world celebrities of the era, from Robert Smithson to Gordon Matta-Clark).
We thrill as she drives her sleek Italian motorcycle (provided by Sandro’s family’s company, a famous manufacturer of cycles and, more lucratively, tires) through the Bonneville Salt Flats, hoping to create a great work of environmental art, but instead succeeding in breaking the female land-speed record. We travel with her to Italy, where she’s been invited to give a valedictory tour celebrating her accomplishment, but then finds herself barricaded inside Sandro’s family’s villa while the Red Brigades stage the insurrections that shut down the entire country for a period in 1975. We feel the tension as she flees Sandro’s villa and its relative safety and finds herself in the middle of the chaos, sharing a squalid Roman apartment with the leaders of the opposition. We watch her go from someone pretending to be an artist to someone consumed by the uses — and limits — of art.
For a certain kind of contemporary novelist, trained in the pre-eminence of empathy and emotion, this would be enough for a successful novel. But Kushner isn’t a typical writer. No matter how satisfying Reno’s story may be, she’s after something headier and more subversive than the heroic arc of a spunky, independent woman set against the super-cool backdrop of ’70s nostalgia.
Throughout the novel, Kushner, whose father comes from a New York Jewish family, takes detours to show us the life and times of T.P. Valera, Italian futurist, motorcycle inventor, tire magnate and father to Reno’s love interest, Sandro. This allows her to contrast large swaths of 20th-century history with her specific 1970s milieu: the cycle-riding Arditi of the Italian forces in World War I, the rise of Italian fascism, the abject lives of the Amazonian tribesmen conscripted in midcentury into working for the Brazilian rubber plantations, the rise of global capitalism and the ideological connections between all these.
“They were smashing and crushing every outmoded and traditional idea… every past thing. Everything old and of good taste, every kind of decadentism and aestheticism. They aimed to destroy czars, popes, kings, professors, ‘gouty homebodies’… all official culture and its pimps, hawkers, and whores,” she writes about the futurists. And, crushing the past, they built corporations, consolidating their own power.