You may have read some reviews of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers that brought up how gorgeous the writing is. The writing is gorgeous. But The Flamethrowers is so inert the beautiful language is like makeup on a corpse. From a distance, things look great. Look closer, and you see the falseness.
I’m not even sure I can tell you the plot of The Flamethrowers, but in a nutshell a young woman nicknamed Reno falls in with the 1970s art scene in downtown New York City, which eventually leads to a trip to Italy during riots and then the 1977 NYC blackout. Alternating with Reno’s story are chapters about her boyfriend’s long-dead father creating the motorcycle culture of Italy, which…never tie in to Reno’s account.
Kushner’s first novel, Telex From Cuba, was a slightly more sophisticated version of a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie. You know the kind, where kindly middle-class white people learn and teach lessons? Thoroughly enjoyable, if slightly fluffy, it was both more and less impressive than The Flamethrowers. The Flamethrowers is worlds away in terms of tone and voice, but a gritty satire of 1970s NYC only takes one so far. And it’s not far enough to matter.