Reno, the 22-year-old protagonist of Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, makes her first appearance as she flies across Nevada on her way to Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats in the 1970s. “The land was drained of color and specificity,” she observes. “The faster I went, the more connected I felt to the map.”
A native of the city for which she’s named, Reno had moved to New York City several months earlier to try to become a successful artist. Now she’s returning home for two weeks to make and photograph motorcycle tracks.
The novel—recently named a finalist for the National Book Award—moves from Nevada and Bonneville to New York’s Lower East Side and across the Atlantic to Italy, but because it is all seen through Reno’s working-class Western lens, the reader never loses sight of the highway and unbroken sky where the novel begins. Kushner deftly connects the disparate locations, using parallel encounters with motorcycles, guns, art and films to subtly link events across time and space.
Events that happen elsewhere in the world illuminate those that take place in the West: For instance, as we follow the founder of the Moto Valera company, who finds beauty in the chaos of urban Milan through the sleekness of his motorcycles, we understand why protagonist Reno quotes one of the land artist Robert Smithson’s more controversial statements: Constructing his famous “Spiral Jetty” in a red algae-filled portion of the Great Salt Lake, Smithson remarked that “pollution and industry could be beautiful.”
The Flamethrowers embraces the Western penchant for speed, and the exhilaration of driving fast through empty landscapes. At the same time, the novel questions who is entitled to represent the West. Reno points out that it is “an irony but a fact” that to become a respected Western artist, she has to move to New York first. A homegrown land artist would be accused of being provincial and naive. And yet, as she says early on, “The question itself is evidence of not belonging.” Once someone is conscious of deliberately representing the West, he or she ceases to effortlessly belong to it.
Between these tense and provocative layers lies an expansive, irresistible story that plays out with action almost as gripping as racing a motorcycle across the Bonneville Salt Flats.
This review originally appeared in High Country News.
By Rachel Kushner
400 pages, $26.99