Written for The Slate Book Review
Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is an award-winning novel and a National Book Award Finalist. Published in 2013, it has been lavished with acclaim and considered a defining novel of the twenty-first century. In fact, it is held in such high esteem that reviewers who dare to criticize the novel often face criticism themselves. But why? Does this book truly belong in conversation with the literary greats, or is it simply the mass hysteria and mob-like mentality that is the culprit behind the praise?
The novel follows two storylines situated roughly forty years apart. The 1930s timeline opens the novel and begins in medias res with motorcycle and tire magnate T.P. Valera killing a German soldier. The following chapters take the reader back to his childhood in Egypt and Italy, where Kushner traces his preoccupation with motorcycles. The need for speed correlates with his first bout of sexual awakening and rejection and sets him on a path towards fame and fortune. Valera and his posse are misogynistic, and his separation from the Arditi only comes when he realizes that they enjoy motorcycles for the aesthetic value more so than actually riding them. Valera later moves to Brazil, where he exploits slave labor to harvest rubber while finessing the system so that he does not have to direct even more of his profits to his pal Benito Mussolini’s war effort.
In the 1970s timeline, Kushner features a young photographer who goes by the nickname of Reno. She yearns to be part of the art scene and moves across the country to New York in order to pursue her dream. She finds herself getting involved with Sandro, the estranged son of T.P. Valera. Many years his junior, Reno takes his opinions on life and art as gospel, much to the chagrin of her friend Giddle. Reno also has a fixation with motorcycles, and she travels to the Bonneville Salt Flats to try her luck at breaking a world speed record and photograph the aftermath of the salt tracks.
This novel certainly does many things well. From the aforementioned summary, as well as the ambiguous blurb featured on the back of the novel, a bookstore browser would not know how politically charged this piece is. Although it is set in the thirties and seventies, there are many resonances with the current political climate. Burdmoore Model, an ex-“Motherfucker,” tells tales of his exploits in a group that was founded upon anarchy and destruction, and the Valeras find themselves at the mercy of the Red Brigade, a group formed by the protesting working class and who often have violent clashes with the police. Furthermore, the senior Valera’s timeline does not shy away from graphically describing the execution and subsequent mutilation of Mussolini. The modern reader surely will see elements of the problems that plague today’s world such as police brutality and the disturbing rise of fascist leaders. However, this is a fortunate coincidence, for when Kushner wrote and published The Flamethrowers, Donald Trump’s presidency and Mike Brown’s murder had yet to occur. Fans of the novel will praise its political acuity, while critics can easily underscore the mere serendipity of it all.
In hindsight, the plot of the novel is exciting. However, the novel is largely character-driven, which is fortunate because Kushner litters the work with some interesting ones. Reno, for example, can best be described as an angstier, artsier, and less endearing Forrest Gump. While she does not spout classic catchphrases, Reno is an observer of many key moments in history. Forrest Gump is present for tangible moments, and Reno finds herself as a part of larger cultural movements. She serves as a lens for the reader into her world, and she very rarely offers criticisms of it. Consequently, she acts as a conduit for the audience to experience things just as she does. As such, as many fans would agree, she is a great protagonist. She presents people and places and ideas to readers and lets them interpret them as they may, leading to a highly individualized and intimate reading experience. On the other hand, her passivity is something many critics attack. When faced with misogyny, betrayal, and other injustices, Reno does nothing in response and often hands the reigns over to someone else to handle.
Another interesting group of characters is the Valera family. They are featured across different geographic spaces and timelines, yet all four of them are remarkably similar and equally fascinating. Their greatest shared trait is their objectification of and indifference to other human beings. That certainly does not sound like someone you want to befriend, but as characters, this opens the door to a host of possibilities. T.P. Valera builds a fortune off of the back of enslaved Indians in Brazil, who only work for him because their other option was fighting in World War II. Should they dawdle in any way, his overseer kills them and records their cause of death as “yellow fever.” Furthermore, his lack of affection for his wife and Sandro likely caused their indifference, and his extreme love for his son Roberto led to Roberto learning his leadership styles. Roberto takes over Moto Valera and similarly mistreats his workers leading to Red Brigade retaliation. Signora Valera is so nasty to Reno that she leaves the villa only to discover Sandro in the act of infidelity, and Sandro’s minimalist attitudes towards people and art give him a delicious arrogance that makes readers love to hate him. This family helps propel a lot of the action in the story via a domino effect, and their shortcomings are what make them interesting. Sorry critics: I cannot help you with this one.
As I mentioned before, the plot is only exciting in hindsight. The benefit of some distance and filtering out the minutia is that the mind then strings together a high stakes narrative of recklessness and rebellion. Actually reading The Flamethrowers, however, requires some perseverance. I can confirm that this is not a “plane read,” and if you are looking for that, I suggest a Mindy Kaling or Tina Fey autobiography instead. Conversely, like all great pieces of literature, this book is worth the effort. The prose is elegant, even when describing characters who shoot blanks at each other’s crotches for some weird sexual pleasure. The trick to reading Kushner is to let her words wash over you, no matter how verbose the sentence is. Writers like Edith Wharton or Charles Dickens are not a breeze to read either, but their novels undoubtedly shaped the English lexicon. It is too soon to tell if Flamethrowers will cement its place in the literary canon, but it certainly is not a stretch to put Kushner’s style in conversation with those authors.
Something that I personally enjoyed was the infusion of real cultural references into the various timelines. I will never exist in the 1930s or 1970s, but there was such a concrete realness to the world Kushner created that I felt like I was there. References to political groups helped, but what really solidified the image were the casual yet obscure references to celebrities and locales. Kushner does not break her stride to explain these allusions, forcing her readers to trust her and immerse themselves in her world. I liked this aspect of the novel, and therefore I find myself among the supporters. However, unlike criticisms of the Valeras, I can see how detractors would oppose this technique. Some of Kushner’s references went over my head, but many of them were familiar. For people who have minimal exposure to the culture of the seventies, there is a frustrating divide between the novel and the reader. It can feel like being on the outside of a private joke, and consequently the novel can alienate readers and cause them to put it away unfinished.
The beauty of The Flamethrowers is that it can inspire such a spirited debate among the literary community. While its style, characters, and subject matter undoubtedly thrust it into the limelight, the disharmony among reviewers is what makes it truly great. Books that are unanimously agreed upon as excellent often slip quietly into obscurity as time passes, but the books that spark a dialogue are the ones with staying power. Seeing a literal review war across publications increases the buzz surrounding the novel, leading people to want to see for themselves what the big deal is and where they stand in the controversy. As more people take a closer look, more voices join the discussion and carry the novel past the dreaded “fifteen minutes of fame” into a permanent fixture in literature. Therefore, in the end, it does not truly matter if the novel is “hot or not” – as long as it keeps the conversation going, The Flamethrowers will be a classic.