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THE FLAMETHROWERS by Rachel Kushner Kirkus Star


by Rachel Kushner

Pub Date: April 2nd, 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4391-4200-4
Publisher: Scribner

A novel of art and politics but also of bikes and speed—not Harleys and drugs, but fine (and fast) Italian motorbikes.

At 21, Reno (who goes by the name of the city she comes from) has graduated with a degree in art from the University of Nevada-Reno, and she does what any aspiring artist would like to—heads to New York City. She gets her kicks by riding a Moto Valera, a magnificent example of Italian engineering. In fact, for one brief shining moment in 1976, she sets a speed record of 308.506 mph on her bike at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This impressive achievement occurs the year after she’d headed to New York, where she’d taken up with—amazing coincidence—Sandro Valera, scion of the Italian manufacturer of the motorbikes she favors and, like Reno, an aspiring artist in New York. Other coincidences abound—for example, that Reno had had sex with a young man, and they’d agreed not to exchange names, but shortly afterward she finds out he’s a close friend of Sandro’s, and he goes on to play a major role in her life. Kushner spends a considerable amount of time flashing us back to the Valera who founded the firm in the early 20th century, and she updates the fate of the company when Reno and Sandro visit his family home in Italy. There they experience both a huge demonstration and eventually the kidnapping of Sandro’s father, a victim of the political turbulence of the 1970s.

Kushner writes well and plunges us deeply into the disparate worlds of the New York City art scene, European political radicalism and the exhilarating rush of motorcycles.