“The Flamethrowers” is an electric read

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Some novels don’t stand still. Rachel Kushner’s second novel, “The Flamethrowers,”  moves abruptly but smoothly between several different worlds: from the New York art scene of the 1970s, to Italy, the backdrop of the growth and expansion of the Valera motorcycle company and the fierce political turmoil of the “Years of Lead” in the ’60s
and ’70s.

At the center of this sprawl is a character referred to as Reno because that’s where she’s from — the reader never learns her real name. Reno travels to New York City to explore her art career and make something of her fascination with motorcycles and speed. She quickly falls in with a perplexing group of people who insist that life and art do not need to be separated. 

As Reno meets these intriguing characters she remarks, “One was left unsure: if the thing observed was performance or plain life.”

Everything in Kushner’s novel balances on a thin line between fact and fiction. The fictional Valera company’s history is so convincing that one would really believe that they had used Indian slave labor to harvest rubber in Brazil to make tires for German vehicles in World War II. Reno’s story about Flip Farmer, who set the land speed record in 1965 traveling 522 mph, feels like it is resurrected from some neglected corner of history. But none of it is real.

The novel’s characters tell magentic stories that move forward quickly and intensely. The rapid movement of the story is often manifested in actual speed, as Reno races across desert highways at 150 mph and remembers cutting through the snow on skis, “tracing lines that were already drawn.” But the pace of the story can also be felt in the brisk progression of events and ideas, the scarcely connected collections of thoughts that make up so many of the stories in the book. 

Kushner’s prose flourishes at every opportunity, though at times, her indulgent descriptions can cause the novel to drag. Too many opportunities are taken to point out the savage, industrial beauty in a landscape or a piece of art. At one point Kushner describes a floor as “an interlocking map of various unmatched linoleum pieces in faded floral reds, resembling a cracked and soiled Matisse.” 

The novel slows toward the end, losing the rhythm of its seemingly disparate chapters that make the beginning so electric. But the effect is only weak by comparison, and the book is anything but underwhelming.

The novel’s epigraph is Latin: “Fac ut ardeat,” or “make it burn.” Whether it refers to Molotov cocktail-throwing political dissenters of 1970s Italy, the motorcycle battalions of World War I or the hip, avant garde artists of New York, “The Flamethrowers” is always burning — issuing hot, magnetic sparks of details that can’t help but set fires of their own.