Let’s address that “art” concept first. Here’s the way author Kushner presents its genesis to the reader:
When I was little, skiing in the Sierras, I felt that I was drawing on the mountain’s face, making big sweeping graceful lines. That was how I had started to draw, I’d told Sandro, as a little girl, five, six years old, on skis. Later, when drawing became a habit, a way of being, of marking time, I always thought of skiing. When I began ski racing, slalom and giant slalom, it was as if I were tracing lines that were already drawn, and the technical challenge that shadowed the primary one, to finish with a competitive time, was to stay perfectly in the lines, to stay early through the gates, to leave no trace, because the harder you set your skis’ metal edge, the bigger wedge of evidence you left, the more you slowed down. You wanted no snow spraying out behind you. You wanted to be traceless. To ride a flat ski as much as possible. The ruts that cut around and under the bamboo gates, deep trenches if the snow was soft, were to be avoided by going high, by picking a high and graceful line, with no sudden swerves or shuddering edges, as I rode the rails to the finish.
Reno will set that record on the salt flats, but the artistic side of the project gets literally blown off course — a gust of wind means she crashes her cycle shortly after crossing the speed measuring line. Even that accident has a side benefit, however. Team Valera is also aiming for the world car speed record. And when their driver has set that, to keep a competing American squad off the flats, they put a bandaged-up Reno in the car — and she proceeds to set the woman’s world record in that class as well.
While Reno was born and schooled in Nevada, she has moved to New York to pursue her art interests and is now part of the 1970s art community in SoHo. She has been taken up as a student and lover by an established installation artist, Sandro — we don’t know yet that he is Sandro Valera, son of the Italian family that makes the motorcycles and cars, but we will soon. He is the one who arranged for her to get that competitive motor cycle although the excuse for the gift was the artistic side of the project.
He pretended I was placed in his life to torture him, when it was really the other way around. He acted smitten but I was the smitten one. Sandro held all the power. He was older by fourteen years and a successful artist, tall and good-looking in his work clothes and steel-toed boots — the same kinds of clothes that Bobby and Scott and Andy [Reno’s Nevadan uncle and cousins who had a trucking business] wore, but on Sandro they added up to something else: a guy with a family inheritance who could use a nail gun, a drill press, a person not made effete by money, who dressed like a worker or sometimes a bum but was elegant in those clothes, and never hampered by the question of whether he belonged in a given situation (the question itself was evidence of not belonging).
Anyone who has read Kushner’s debut novel Telex From Cuba (I have and I was quite impressed) will be aware that she has a political side to her (one of its themes is the collapse of American economic imperialism in Cuba) and that theme shows up here as well. It is introduced with a brief prologue from 1917 featuring a Valera who is part of the Italian cycle battalion in that war. In chapters dropped into the main narrative, we follow the Valera family into their support of Mussolini during WWII and their imperialist development of exploitative rubber plantations in Brazil during and after the war. Fast cars and motorcycles may be the Valera firm’s branding — they make most of their considerable fortune off of selling perfectly ordinary tires. Needless to say, Sandro the New York artist rejects the family business, although he is quite content to live off its proceeds.
With those threads in place, author Kushner allows Reno to roam. Much of the book is spent with the contemporary art community in New York — we meet dealers, patrons and most importantly unconventional “artists” pursuing the oddball projects that characterized the era (I won’t even offer an example but they did produce more than the occasional chuckle).
The book also spends some time with the Valera family in Italy. Reno’s world-record status means that she has been invited to take part in a Valera promotional tour, but Sandro insists they must first spend a week with his mother at the family villa on the slopes above Lake Como. It is 1975 and Italy is in political turmoil with Red Brigade demonstrations and kidnappings — needless to say the industrial empire of the Valeras and the family itself are targets.
An unconventional notion of “art”, a troubled love-life and the global politics of inequality — even in summary outline, that suggests a cluttered agenda for the novel and for this reader that was the biggest problem with The Flamethrowers. Each of the story lines held interest, but as the book bounces from one to the other it became a distraction. Each time one thread got interesting, the author moved to another one and the threads never really come together. Kushner is both an accomplished stylist and clever storyteller but the novel never became the sum of its parts.
It is only fair to note that my somewhat grumpy assessment is not shared by an assortment of prize juries, where The Flamethrowers has been a regular feature in recent months — a New York Times 2013 Top Ten book, a finalist for the National Book Award in the U.S., shortlisted for the inaugural Folio Prize in the U.K. and now shortlisted for the Bailey’s Women’s Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize). While it has not emerged as a winner, that is still an impressive list.
I should also note that while reading the book I found myself frequently comparing it to Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, another well-reviewed novel about which I was ambivalent. Tartt’s novel also has a strong “art” element, spends a lot of time in Nevada and New York and sends its central character off to Europe as part of the drama of the plot. If you liked one, I suspect you would like the other — I am quite aware that many readers and critics don’t share my assessment that both books have too much clutter to them.
There is definitely much talent on display in The Flamethrowers — I can’t help but conclude, however, that Kushner has a better book waiting in her future.