The year is 1975 and Reno—so-called because of the place of her birth—has come to New York intent on turning her fascination with motorcycles and speed into art. Her arrival coincides with an explosion of activity in the art world—artists have colonized a deserted and industrial SoHo, are staging actions in the East Village, and are blurring the line between life and art. Reno meets a group of dreamers and raconteurs who submit her to a sentimental education of sorts. Ardent, vulnerable, and bold, she begins an affair with an artist named Sandro Valera, the semi-estranged scion of an Italian tire and motorcycle empire. When they visit Sandro’s family home in Italy, Reno falls in with members of the radical movement that overtook Italy in the seventies. Betrayal sends her reeling into a clandestine undertow.
The Flamethrowers is an intensely engaging exploration of the mystique of the feminine, the fake, the terrorist. At its center is Kushner’s brilliantly realized protagonist, a young woman on the verge. Thrilling and fearless, this is a major American novel from a writer of spectacular talent and imagination.
The Flamethrowers, set in the incendiary 1970s, boldly juxtaposes the New York art scene, motorcycle racing in Nevada, and radical politics in Italy. Reno, Kushner’s main character, travels all of these worlds, and through her, Kushner explores the life of a young female artist and the darker connections between art, artifice, and politics. What’s most impressive is the novel’s voice: how it confidently inhabits history and in dazzling prose mixes the invented with the real.