The Flamethrowers

Photo: Philip Friedman/Studio D

14 of 16
The Flamethrowers
400 pages; Scribner
Past the "sage-tufted" dirt and incessant sameness"; past the billboards advertising beer, livestock, nude dancing; past the motels, freight trains, truck stops; past the brothels, wrecking yards and power plants—our girl, her twin braids tucked into her leathers, heads east on a 650 bullet bike the color of metal-flake teal. Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers is the saga of an electric young woman's full-throttle pursuit of love amid the class war and cultural upheaval of the late '70s. Reno, nicknamed for her hometown in Nevada, is roaring across the state to the Bonneville Salt Flats, gunning to set a land-speed record and photograph her tracks. A freshly minted film student and former slalom racer, 22-year-old Reno aspires to join the Land Art movement à la Robert Smithson, whose Spiral Jetty sculpture on the shore of the Great Salt Lake inspired her to move to Manhattan a year earlier. "I was from the place, the hardhat-wearing, dump-truck-driving world [they] romanticized," she says. "It was an irony but a fact that a person had to move to New York City first." It's here that she meets Sandro Valera, 14 years her senior and the prodigal son of an Italian motorcycle and manufacturing magnate. Bad boys, we love them. And this one might be Reno's downfall, as she pinballs from the desert in Utah to the derelict streets of SoHo to the Valeras' Bellagio mansion and, ultimately, to the hotbed of a revolution in Rome. Vintage scenes for an action flick, yep. But Kushner's second novel (her first was Telex from Cuba) also gets political, weaving in the backstory of Valera's father, as he enslaves Brazilian natives to harvest and smoke rubber for tire production, and tracing the roots of an anticapitalist street gang on the Lower East Side. Even if your thrill seeking is confined to the couch, this addictive read is altogether smart and satisfying. 
— Kristy Davis