This is a book I had been excited to read. I'd seen it discussed with great buzz in a number of publications, I saw the author about to come out to Australia on a promotional tour and I’d seen it on this list of 50 Books That Defined The Past Five Years (as featured in my post for Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk). I’d also seen some beautifully designed covers for the novel, such as this and this. But what I ended up with was a paperback with an ugly cover that didn't quite hold together, both literally (see disintegrating cover above) and figuratively.
The Flamethrowers is set in New York in the late 1970’s. Reno, at 23, has just moved to the city from Nevada to become an artist. From here we watch as Reno searches, but rarely finds. There are some beautiful ideas in The Flamethrowers – an understated, feminist approach to a young woman moving to the big city, searching for love, questioning her beliefs and trying to make her way in the art world – it sounds like classic chic-lit material, but through Kushner it is handled deftly and often poetically. The story takes us from New York, back to Nevada and then to Italy, yet does not feel like a travel story, despite in this regard finding some similarities with Michelle de Kretser’s Questions of Travel.
There were parts of Reno’s story that reminded me of my own period of adventure and self-discovery in London in my early twenties, where I thought a lot about what I was doing and where I wanted to go, for the first time I questioned whether my beliefs were the same as my parents, had my heart spectacularly broken, discovered that you can actually read poetry for fun, played in a band and wrote terrifically awful journal entries about the whole experience. It was a seminal time in my life: I had to throw myself out into the world in order to discover who I was, as corny as that may sound, and Reno follows the same path. There’s a wonderful line in the novel where Kushner writes about Reno’s artistic process and how it dictates her life:
“Art came from a brooding solitude. I felt it had to involve risk, some genuine risk”.
Reno, like many artists, throws her whole life into her work and the questions it raises. Though she comes across as fundamentally shy, her quiet brooding nature contrasting to the hyperactive scenesters she finds herself mixing with, it all feels like an experiment, a calculated decision to try this ‘artist’s lifestyle’ and see what happens.
There are some beautiful blurred lines between art and life in The Flamethrowers. Reno meets a waitress at a local diner who sees herself not as a waitress, but as an actress playing the role of a waitress: the justifications we tell ourselves as creative people needing to pay rent. Later as Reno travels to Italy and is caught up in the political protests of the local workers, her big chance to create new work from the filming of the riots is shattered by her losing her camera and therefore her purpose.
Despite these musings and interesting ideas, The Flamethrowers ultimately fails as a whole. For me the problem came in its set up early on as a thriller: a naïve young artist comes to New York, meets interesting, questionable figures and becomes lured by their perceived maturity, finding herself swept up in the romance of opportunity which takes her to Italy during a politically volatile time. But in this respect, the story falls flat. Though the first 100 or so pages moved slowly, I could see potential for the story to move to darker waters. But rather than using these premises as a tease towards impactful plot twists, Kushner keeps toying with the reader without any release. At times I found this decision interesting, but as I reached the novel’s conclusion, I just found it infuriating.
Perhaps it is Kushner’s decision to keep Reno’s voice passive and understated that prevents the story from engrossing. But passages such as this set the reader up for the promise of something Kushner won’t deliver:
“Something would happen, I was sure. A job, which I needed, but that could isolate a person even further. No. Some kind of event. “Tonight is the night” I later believed I’d told myself on that particular night when I heard the music and Nina Simone’s voice, walked into the bar on Fourteenth Street, and met the people with a gun. But in truth I had not told myself anything. I had simply left my apartment to stroll, as I did every night. What occurred did so because I was open to it, and not because fate and I met at a certain angle. I had plenty of time to think about this later. I thought about it so much that the events of that evening sometimes ran along under my mood like a secret river, in the way that all buried truths rushed along quietly in some hidden place”.
Not longer after, Reno finds work as a China Girl for a film-processing company. She becomes an unseen face, giving the projectionist a colour tone to set the film to. Though this job feels like an incredibly self-conscious decision by Kushner, it plays a part in setting up the initial feeling of mystery and alludes to darkness to come in the story. Speaking of her fellow China Girl’s:
“Their ordinariness was part of their appeal: real but unreachable women who left no sense of who they were. No clue but a Kodak color bar, which was no clue at all”.
This air of mystery continues through as Reno watches those around her, becoming swept up in political protests and though she encounters danger and her safety is thrown into question on more than one occasion, there is no follow through. Kushner continues to tease, pulling Reno in a number of directions but none with velocity. There is still a lot to like about this novel – Reno is certainly a sympathetic character and there are interesting ideas here. But while The Flamethrowers is named after those who throw Molotov cocktails in the Italian workers riots, where Kushner sets up the promise of flame throwing, she only delivers in lighting sparks.
My friend, colleague and fellow book lover Donica moved to New York to be with her lovely partner Joseph right about the time I was reading The Flamethrowers. Reno’s romantic vision of Manhattan was partnered with Donica’s wistful Instagram’s of snow-covered brownstones. The whole thing has had me in a desperate search for cheap flights and delusions about my disposable income that will undoubtedly lead to my partner and I visiting them later this year. But for now, I’m channelling their adventures by recreating Joseph’s kasoundi. Late last year Joseph posted a semi-follow-up story called Thanksgiving Bulgarian Salad, which encouraged me to go back through some of his older pieces and in the process, rediscover this kasoundi story. Paired with sliced pastrami (which brings back magical visions of the pastrami sandwich I had at Katz’s Deli in New York), pickles, radishes, apple, bread and cheese, it made for a ploughman’s like lunch platter that was the perfect mix of nostalgia for my time in London, and dreams of New York.