The Flame Throwers, by Rachel Kushner

I wonder how many people have had the experience of moving to New York. Or any big city, really. It feels like the number would be in the tens of millions. I’ve moved to New York twice, in 1986 to attend college, and in 1997, when I wanted to live in the Northeast again. Some great works of art have captured the experience of the migration—for whatever reason, the first ones that come to mind are the songs: “New York, New York,” “Walk on the Wild Side” and, of course, the theme song to the Mary Tyler Moore show. There are many movies too: Is Godfather II ultimately the story of a guy who moved to New York and got mixed up in some crazy shit like you wouldn’t believe?

Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flame Throwers is about many things—motorcycles, chasing speed records on the Bonneville Salt Flats, the New York art world of the 1970s, the Red Brigades youth movement in Italy. Kushner renders these worlds with an expert eye. But The Flame Throwers is also a more common story about a girl who moves to the big city. The scenes of her first adventures in New York were, for me, the best in a very good book.

In The Flame Throwers and in her debut novel Telex from Cuba, which was nominated for a National Book Award, the abundantly talented Kushner seemed committed to never writing a common sentence or telling a story in a common way. The same is true for nearly all of The Flamethrowers; the narrative opens by flipping between her heroine’s adventures on motorcycles and the roots of Italian company that made her motorcycle. But soon the historical passages drop away and the perspective narrows to that of a young woman in the city, and every now and the narrator will drop in lines such as “I had mistaken physical passion for passion,” that would sound perfectly at home in one of those Carrie Bradshaw voice-overs on Sex and the City.

The lines jumped out to me because they felt like they might be “from the heart,” so to speak, a reflection of some real-life experience. Whether they are or not doesn’t particularly matter to me, but in Telex from Cuba, a book which shifted narrative perspectives much more aggressively, I never felt as though the author were speaking in such a personal way. Here, I did. It stood out, given the extent to which Kushner builds worlds with what appears to be exhaustive historical research.

I am curious to see where Kushner is going with this.

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