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Book review: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

Art and revolution swerve into the same lane as a young woman encounters creative characters of mid-'70s New York City and class war in Italy

Photograph: Jessica Lin

By Rachel Kushner. Scribner, $27.

Youth, art and revolution all demand a body count, or so Rachel Kushner suggests in her bracing, sometimes brutal second novel. The central character, a young artist nicknamed Reno, is almost secondary to the larger-than-life figures she encounters in the late 1970s, including artists and countercultural revolutionaries, who fall into one of two violent categories: the Weather Underground sort and the even more dedicated-to-destruction Italian kind.

Reno’s bridge between the two worlds is her boyfriend, Sandro Valera, an Italian artist living in New York, whose businessman father built a tire and motorcycle empire on the backs of Brazilian slave laborers. Kushner’s focus shifts between Reno’s artistic journey and the Valera family’s rise, rendering locales ranging from the Salt Flats of Utah to the Amazonian rain forest with sterling detail. The narrative veers and swerves between locations and times, creating a jerky sense of anxiety. While beginning an art project on the Salt Flats, Reno crashes a motorcycle and is subsequently adopted by the Valera racing team. Her beau, the black sheep of his family, resists Reno’s inclusion, but she nonetheless ventures with them to Italy—and there learns more about Sandro and revolution than she cares to know.

The Flamethrowers packs an impressive punch, and Kushner’s writing is fantastically vivid. Her use of color is cinematic, and she frames the minutiae of everything from obscure art movements to motorcycle parts as if she had intimate knowledge of each subject. Her constructions don't just pop off the page, they blister and seer into your brain. From descriptions of clouds to 12-page soliloquies on sailing around the world, it’s often difficult to see where the author is going. But it’s nearly impossible not to follow her.

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