Saturday, August 2, 2014

Book eleven: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner.

The New York art scene, earth/land art and the artists who make it, and my home, the state of Utah all reside high on my list of favorite things. Throw in the fact that I lived in Italy for a couple of years and it's no surprise that I liked Rachel Kushner's latest novel, The Flamethrowers. I might not have realized how much I liked the book because I might not have read it if it weren't for a couple of facts: This is a book about artists and art, my literary theme for 2014; and it appeared on just about every 2013 top ten list that I respect.

The novel tells the story of Reno, a female artist living in the 1970s who has a penchant for speed. An early work finds her filming herself as she races a Moto Valera, an Italian motorbike at breakneck speeds across the Utah Salt Flats. Things don’t go well. But as Reno notes, “I felt [art] had to involve risk, some genuine risk.”

The motorbike is a gift from her older boyfriend, the wealthy Italian, Sandro Valera.  His wealth comes from his family who makes premium tires and motorbikes back in Italy.  Sandro lives in New York and doesn't like his family history so he’s initially disappointed when Reno wants to go to Italy. You can see why Sandro takes issue with his family.  His father Valera has made most of his money by exploiting the Brazilian workers who produced the rubber for the company’s tires.

Ultimately Reno joins the cause of radical protestors that overtook Italy in the seventies. Her affair with Sandro falls apart, and she becomes somewhat disillusioned with life.  In the end she returns to New York.

Reno is a fascinating, darkly funny, and tragic character. Kushner writes her with richness and with a feminist idealism that is just insecure enough to raise questions about women in society that seem right for the time and yet relevant today. In fact, there's a lot in the novel that resonates for both the historical needs of the 70s and today.  With issues of income inequality, worker protests, or the extravagances of the rich, Kushner boldly confronts her readers with an incendiary series of events.  Events that had me thinking about the world as it stands today.

There are long passages in the mid part of this book that are dizzying, and not necessarily in a good way.  Although they may be there to give the book a more realistic sense of the 1970s. But with its sparkling prose, complex characters, and sweeping story, The Flamethrowers is well worth the read.

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