If I’m completely honest, when I first picked up The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner I was all set for a tale about a crack military squad systematically offing bad guys by burning them to a crisp with jets of flame. Imagine my surprise then when what unfolded was less Great Escape and more The Great Gatsby. Or at least, I think that’s what it was aiming for.
The Flamethrowers is one of those books which is difficult to categorise. On one level, it’s a coming of age story, but it’s also a critique of the 1970s New York art scene, as well as an examination of Italy’s history of political upheaval. The plot follows a woman called Reno, an aspiring artist who moves to New York in order to advance her career, taking her across the Nevada salt flats on a motorbike, and into a Roman socialist uprising. Despite the ample opportunity the plot provides, Kushner never falls into the trap of sensationalism. In fact, you very much get the sense that with The Flamethrowers she was trying to write the next great American novel.
This is a book that wants to deal with important themes; it wants to make its reader think hard about what it’s trying to say. In certain places, this is managed well. However, a lot of the symbolism that Kushner uses is either applied heavy handedly or just outright explained to the reader. For example, the letter X features prominently as a motif in the novel, undoubtedly meant to symbolise a crossroads or danger or something else equally literary. Often however it just feels unnaturally crowbarred in, almost as if Kushner thought of the metaphor without really knowing how best to apply it. Though that’s not to say that she is a bad author. Certain passages of The Flamethrowers are beautifully written, during which Kushner demonstrates a skill for composing sentences that is all too rarely seen in modern literature. Her descriptions of the Nevada desert and the riot in Rome in particular are magnificent. There’s a tangible sense of place that at times borders on the poetic.
The Flamethrowers is unlikely to become the next Gatsby or Of Mice and Men. But if you’re looking for an engaging read that’ll also make you look smart to your friends, you could certainly do a lot worse.