Friday, June 28, 2013

Shelf Life [adult]

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
@SPL: FIC Kushn

If you’re looking for a literary summer read that features adventure, brilliant prose, and scathingly witty dialogue, then have I got the book for you. The Flamethrowers is the second work of fiction by Rachel Kushner, and could in no way be called a sophomore slump compared to her critically acclaimed first, Telex from Cuba.  

The Flamethrowers is a coming-of-age novel that follows a young woman from her hometown of Reno, Nevada to the New York City art scene in the 1970s. We never learn her name – all other characters just call her after her hometown. Reno finds herself mingling in an image-conscious, social-climbing mix of anarchists, nihilists, minimalists and deconstructionists who bum around art shows and try to be authentically inauthentic.

Most characters don’t ever acknowledge what or who they actually are; those who do won’t allow their roots to be uttered in their presence. While none of them are strictly likable or even sympathetic, they are absolutely glorious waste-bags – lost, drunk, and full of hot air - and a pitch-perfect snapshot of the seventies’ NYC art scene on Kushner’s part. 

Reno falls for a suave older artist named Sandro Valera, heir to an Italian family fortune made building tires and motorcycles. During a visit to Villa Valera gone awry, Reno finds herself on the streets just as labour tensions spill over into riots against the Italian upper crust, including Sandro’s family.

Kushner’s prose sustains a tangible sense of place, from the arid salt flats of Nevada, to the electric/anarchic feel of New York’s streets during the 1977 blackout, to lush evenings at villa Valera, and ultimately to the poor Italian neighbourhoods of protesters. Much of the local colour comes from the dialogue of characters in each particular place, but Kushner also adeptly captures the emotional resonance of each location.

The cinematic sense of place and funky seventies cultural throwbacks may appeal to fans of Michael Chabon (especially his Telegraph Avenue) but readers should be aware that The Flamethrowers’ pacing is much faster. Also, the feminist edge to Kushner’s prose might be a welcome antidote to Chabon’s heavy testosterone for some readers. Ultimately, though, any readers who love literary fiction with a retro seventies bent and lots of action will enjoy The Flamethrowers.
This review appears in The Stratford Gazette on June 27, 2013. Written by Shauna Thomas, Librarian.

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