Snarling under the hood of this majestic novel by Oregon-born, LA-living Rachel Kushner is a torque-churning engine run on literary nitrous oxide.


The Flamethrowers (even the title has fire curling out of its nostrils, for God’s sake) is the story of Reno, barely in her twenties, as she tries to make her way in the 1970s New York art scene.

In the 30-page set piece that opens the book, we find Reno going ton-up on a “Valera” motorbike across Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. She’s the only woman out here. She’s taking part in a speed trial so she can photograph the line her bike leaves in the salt and make her first art work from it. She’s pegging the Valera’s throttle, riding into the sky. And then she wipes out at somewhere clockwise of 100 miles per hour. Ms Kushner — I think you have our attention now.

There’s so much exhilarating, crazy shit going on in this book, it’s as if you never get off that intense, blood-pulsing first ride across the salt flats. Over the next 400 pages, Kushner unwraps the story of how Reno came to find herself perched in the saddle of that Valera.


The Valera motorcycle company, beautifully, turns out to be a complete invention of Kushner’s. (Reading it, it’s so vivid, dirty and gritty, you assume she’s plucked it out of history.) She shows us how the company was founded by TP Valera, a young Italian buck who started life — in the years before the First World War — pelting round the streets of Rome in a gang of motorcycling proto-futurists. When war breaks out, he signs up for the Italian army’s motorbike battalion; he then survives by beating a German soldier to death with the headlamp of his beloved hog. And then, when the war ends, he finally starts his own motorcycle manufacturer.

Thirty years on, his son Sandro Valera is living in New York as an artist — and he’s Reno’s boyfriend, the guy who’s lent her his beautiful dream machine for her to race across the salt flats.

Like Reno’s ride out under the Utah sky, you’re never quite sure where all of this is headed. Kushner tears through the New York art scene, through rubber-tapping in 1930s Brazil, through workers’ riots in Milan and a sublime blackout in New York.