“I always had this feeling that there were two worlds. The one we live in, you know, just streaming along, future into present into past, recorded distortedly in people’s minds, and this other world: stock footage. Small integers of life, I mean life in quotes, which represent whatever did take place, whether or not what’s on the stock footage actually occurred. Cropping can make outcomes so ambiguous, but it doesn’t matter, see. It’s stock footage. A reference file for Caucasian skin tones; it doesn’t matter that you exist. For the technician or projectionist, you’re an index for the existence of woman, flesh, flesh tones. Which brings up the question of race, unaddressed. You, as you, have nothing to do with it.”
An unnamed twenty-something from Reno, Nevada makes her way cross country for the purpose of turning her passion for extreme speed and modes of transport into some sort of artful expression. ‘She’ is a child of unsentimental and reckless parents which naturally leads to a young woman with a thirst for adrenaline and a need for speed. When young ladies her age have David Cassidy posters hanging on their bedroom wall ‘She’ has the current land speed record holder Flip Farmer pinned down in four places. Finding inspiration in the strangest of places ‘She’ lives, learns, and becomes a struggling artist traveling to New York after spontaneously embarking on a skiing adventure in the Sierra mountains. Because really, there are only two places in the world where the term ‘struggling artist’ means anything to anybody, am I right? In her mind there’s only one place to go and that is the Big Apple, the city that definitely is rotten in places and seedy in others. With such perfect timing, akin to pulling the throttle in a sharp turn, you would think there was some divine intervention in that she was settling in, at a time when art was beginning to take many different shapes, forms, and becoming a scene that everyone in the city wanted to be a part of.
At the heart of The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner is The Bowery in New York City which acts as a playground for the majority of the cast of characters found in this book. From this turning point on ‘She’ is referred to as Reno after a drunk encounter with a couple while in desperate need of some socialization. Reno tends to be found more on the fringes of the various movements, thrust into the members only club, and eventually takes centre stage whether she likes it or not. In Italy a different type of revolution is taking shape. Auto workers are clashing with their own representation in the form of a labour union. Desperate times call for drastic measures and the employees are rioting in the streets which also gave great cause and a voice for the younger generation; which one would expect to lead to protests, riots, occupations, abductions, and even murder. As Reno makes her way to Monza for her pomp, pageantry, and photo shoots she finds herself holed up in the Valera family Villa where she undergoes her own stresses. The idea of bringing her trusty camera and going to the heart of the city’s unrest couldn’t bring more appeal even if it came as a result of her own glory of being recognized as being the fastest woman land speed record holder being compromised.
“Something would happen, I was sure. A job, which I needed, but that could isolate a person even further. No. Some kind of event. ‘Tonight is the night,’ I later believed I’d told myself on that particular night when I heard the music and Nina Simone’s voice, walked into the bar on Fourteenth Street, and met the people with the gun. But in truth I had not told myself anything. I had simply left my apartment to stroll, as I did every night. What occurred did so because I was open to it, and not because fate and I met at a certain angle. I had plenty of time to think about this later. I thought about it so much that the events of the evening sometimes ran along under my mood like a secret river, in the way that all buried truths rushed along quietly in some hidden places.”
A quest to find a filmmaker from her past turned into a tryst with a man that again initially has no name. Sandro Valera ends up being formally introduced to the reader and is a recognized minimalism artist in the local scene. He comes from a wealthy family responsible for the Moto Valera but he is more about present and future perspective than that of past performances in life and art. Constantly trying to reinvent himself, Sandro often finds himself needing a new inspiration in the form of a beautiful young woman (for art’s sake), as if he is a long-standing member of the Muse of the Month Club. It isn’t until New York starts closing in on him that he begrudgingly goes back to his roots and to his safe haven waiting for everything to calm down before he can get back to his art in peace. In the 1970’s unless you were one of the last with flower petals in your hair, smoking weed, tripping on LSD, grooving to Jefferson Airplane, and all about that free love; peace was merely a dream your heart made.
“They all talked nonstop. That is, if you didn’t intervene. They were accustomed to being interrupted. Whoever was hungrier to speak, spoke. I wasn’t hungry in that same way. I was hungry to listen. Sandro said I was his little green-eyed cat at these parties. A cat studying mice, he said, and I said it was more like a cat among dogs, half-terrified. ‘You shouldn’t be,’ he said. ‘You always have something interesting to say, but you withhold it. The only one besides me who knows you,’ he said, ‘is Ronnie.’ Which sent a curious wave through me. I wanted to believe it was true that Ronnie knew me.”
New York in the 70’s was in the midst of what will be remembered by many residents in the new millennium as being the decade of decline. Before hipsters, alt kids, and bruskers littered the streets there were an enormity of pimps, prostitutes, and criminals taking advantage of an economic downturn and the dark cloud more ominous and low hanging than usual that caste over the city. With many businesses bankrupt and people unemployed, many turned to drugs, alcohol and the overwhelming amount of gentleman’s clubs and economical 25 cent peep shows found on the streets for distraction from life’s troubles. A city in such disrepair that even taking public transit out of town may not assure you your way out. I am reminded of Travis Bickle from Taxi Driver looking for his next customer constantly thinking and finally saying ‘Thank God for the rain to wash the trash off the sidewalk.’
This story deals with the topics of reality vs. fantasy and fate vs. chance. With art being at the centre stage there is a lot left for interpretation. Heavy on the irony given the untrustworthy nature of the supporting characters, Reno is often involved and around people, but never really fully understands who they are. To be seen but not noticed seems to be the mantra for many of the characters of this book. For all of the high-octane action, precarious sexual encounters, and civil volatility I found the story in general to lack much of a pulse. It more or less flatlined which seemed inconceivable given the totality of the subject matter and what would be safe to assume, the intention of the author. There are some really cool elements that should have been more explored but ultimately left me as a reader feeling unfulfilled. One of the more interesting aspects of the book became realized at the presence of one of the main characters Ronnie Fontaine and Giddle the performance artist. They are the epitome of the story and worthy of a few laughs. I can also appreciate the author’s ability to make present the excruciating uncertainty of the past when it comes to people, places, and things whether it be New York, guns, art, status, Italy, women, politics or other interesting talking points. Some people will love this book, it just wasn’t for me.
“I looked closer. There was a little depression in the center of my normally rounded chin. I had a chin cleft. It was showing. Maybe it was the powder but I think it was Giddle. She said the right kind of chin cleft was one that came and went, that you didn’t want a permanent cleft. It brought too much luck, and forced a terrible burden of joy on its bearer. Like Robert Mitchum, she said, who navigated a pussy wagon all over northern Mexico and drank paint thinner when he ran out of mescal, and would be destroyed by his cleft. Too deep, she said. Too strong.”