Rachel Kushner’s new novel, “The Flamethrowers,” is a high-wire performance worthy of Philippe Petit. On lines stretched tight between satire and eulogy, she strolls above the self-absorbed terrain of the New York art scene in the 1970s, providing a vision alternately intimate and elevated. Although she wasn’t even a teenager when SoHo became an urban happening, in these pages the wacky, ultimately tragic era comes into focus with vibrant fidelity.
That’s no surprise. Kushner has been writing about contemporary art for years, and she’s quickly turning into a superb recent-historical novelist. Her debut, “Telex From Cuba” (a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award), spread out Batista’s island in the 1950s in all its garish colors. Fans will see her pursuing some of the same themes here, particularly the tension between workers and those who exploit them, and the murky values of self-righteous radicals. But “The Flamethrowers” is a denser novel that moves around the world, from Brazil to Manhattan to Italy, sabotaging easy conclusions about who’s authentic and who’s a poser.
Our guide through this passage from innocence to experience is a pretty, young college graduate from Nevada who goes by the name Reno. Like so many naive artists before her, she makes the pilgrimage east to soak up the avant-garde spirit. “I knew no one else,” she tells us, “but downtown New York was so alive with people my age, and so thoroughly abandoned by most others, that the energy of the young seeped out of the ground. I figured it was only a matter of time before I met people, was part of something.”
With the camera she stole from school, she squats in a squalid apartment, waiting for — for what? To be inspired? To be discovered? “I thought art came from a brooding solitude,” she says. “I felt it had to involve risk, some genuine risk.” But what’s truly risky and what’s truly genuine prove difficult for Reno to determine.
There’s a “Midnight Cowboy” vibe to this New York adventure engorged with potential sex and transformation. Desperately lonely and baffled by the so-called art she sees on display, Reno is just about to give up when she happens to fall in with a dissolute couple in an empty bar. The next 20 brilliant pages could make any writer’s career: a set piece of New York night life that’s a daze of comedy, poignancy and violence. Unsure whether she’s expected to follow them or not, Reno and this drunk pair float from bar to bar and finally to an apartment, where her hosts excuse themselves to make love — with a pistol full of blanks. I haven’t read anything quite like this scene since Tom took Nick Carraway to Myrtle’s little apartment in “The Great Gatsby.”
That evening with the drunk couple eventually ushers Reno into a group of artists, performers, gallery owners and general hangers-on who will be her comrades for the next two years. How well Kushner knows these exotic creatures who live in “a world of infatuation and innuendo and games.” She re-creates gallery openings that display their grasping ambition disguised under cool indifference, their utter lack of curiosity passed off as prior familiarity with anyone who’s anyone. And Kushner invites us along to their languid dinner parties, which serve up gourmet helpings of self-promotion spiced with menace and flattery.
Her attention to the way these artists talk comes as close to parody as Warhol got to Campbell’s soup. “I used to paint,” one blowhard announces. “I had to give it up. I lost contact with the paintings.” Another drones: “The main thing to understand is that I deal in light. I mean I deal with light. It’s a way of portraying light — light that is a lit picture of some other, original light.” One night, she listens to a man who plays endless tape recordings of himself: He wants to make himself sick of talking “by talking it all out.”
Although some of their bizarre stories are absorbing, Reno can’t shake her provincial need to separate truth from lies. “You were never going to know which was which,” she complains. (Was the car really filled with dead rabbits? Did he really suffer amnesia and sail around the world?) But she’s fallen in with a crowd that believes in “the uselessness of the truth.” All these people are performing all the time. Reno’s only friend, a waitress, tells her that she’s not really a waitress; she’s just pretending to be a waitress. (Keep that in mind, new graduates!) Another woman stands in a booth exposing her genitals for a piece entitled “Alone.” Hardly . . .
It’s among this crowd of psychedelic bloviators that Reno meets Sandro, 14 years her senior and the son of an Italian rubber baron. “He was beautiful,” Reno says, “with a strange stillness, curiously both present and remote, with those eyes that were blanched of compassion but magnetic all the same.” He’s turned his back on his family’s fortune and devoted his life to making expensive aluminum boxes. (He has a show at the Corcoran.) On their first date, Sandro feels her up in a Chinese movie theater and saves a drowning man in the Hudson River. And that’s not the weirdest evening they spend together over the months that follow.
Kushner’s seductive prose is never truly surreal, but she doesn’t present Reno’s adventures in chronological order, which reflects the dreamlike flow of her experiences. In fact, the first time we meet her, she’s riding an Italian motorcycle to the Bonneville speed trials in Utah to take photographs of her tracks in the salt flats — “drawing in a fast and almost traceless way.” As a work of art, this scheme is no stranger than some of the other contrivances she’s seen in New York, and it has the added benefit of imperiling her life.
It also sets the novel on its careening trajectory, as Reno hurtles through one near miss after another, always thirsting for more speed, radiating the kind of smoldering sexual energy that bends everyone’s attention. Her journey eventually leads to Italy, where much of the latter part of the novel takes place. Kushner presents scenes of domestic extravagance amid a country inflamed by labor conflicts that burn far hotter than Reno expected. But murder, it turns out, is just a different kind of performance.
This is a lot for a young woman from Nevada to take in; it’s a lot for a reader to take in. My summary of the plot looks like a stick figure next to a Jackson Pollock (and I haven’t even mentioned the tense chapters about Sandro’s father during World War II that periodically interrupt the story). The breadth of Kushner’s historical and critical knowledge could be oppressive if this weren’t such an alluring performance. What really dazzles, though, is her ability to steer this zigzag plot so expertly that she can let it spin out of control now and then. I won’t ruin the ending, but let me add that “The Flamethrowers” concludes with two astonishing scenes: one all black, one all white, as striking as any of the desert photographs Reno aspires to shoot, but infinitely richer and more evocative. Hang on: This is a trip you don’t want to miss.
Charles is The Washington Post’s fiction editor. You can follow him on Twitter: @RonCharles.
By Rachel Kushner
Scribner. 383 pp. $26.99