Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is a sexy novel that’s more than a coming-of-age story. The novel revolves around Reno, a young artist who moves to New York, and the Valera family, a powerful Italian family that operates a motorcycle and tire empire. Reno falls in love with the Sandro Valera, who’s left the family business behind and is a sculptor in New York.
I’m trying to be careful using that term coming-of-age, because I don’t want to turn off readers. When I hear something described as a coming-of-age story, I tend to avoid it. Maybe it was reading too many bad short stories for Prairie Schooner. Though Reno is young, naive, and learning about the world; she’s also alluring, strong, and interesting. Does the reader know more than Reno? When it comes to men and relationships, probably yes. When it comes to motorcycles and art, Reno may have more knowledge than the reader.
But while the book centers on Reno and her relationship with Sandro, it also provides a multigenerational arc that speeds along rubber tires, lights streaking through the night. We see how Sandro’s father became enthralled with motorcycles when they were first invented. We see him build and design his own machine and how that love for speed becomes a multinational corporation involved in Italian politics.
The book takes in the 1970’s and radicalism swarms around the characters. Who is Sandro and how does he reconcile his past with his cultivated image as a disinterested artist? In the midst of untrustworthy characters, Reno navigates as best she can. Something will burn in this novel. The question is, what?