RACHEL KUSHNER’S FIRST NOVEL, Telex from Cuba, a National Book Award finalist in 2008, chronicled life on the island in the 1950s, mostly as seen through the eyes of two American children: a boy, K. C. Stites, whose father runs a United Fruit sugar plantation, and a girl called Everly Lederer, whose father manages a nickel mine. Politics is glimpsed through the smoke from the back of a nightclub, where the Cuban showgirl Rachel K (as tricky as the author who named her) stirs intrigues among the deposed President Prio, the soon-to-be-deposed President Batista, the up-and-coming Castros, and a French arms dealer who used to be in the Gestapo. Sex and telexes keep the plot—or history, really—going in between the descriptions of life on the plantation and around the mine. As with the sections in Anna Karenina about Konstantin Levin’s farm, your taste for these bits will depend on how many spoonfuls of adultery you take in your cup of agricultural living—or, in Kushner’s case, of US neo-colonialism. I grew up the son of a truck driver who hauled bananas grown on the estates of the former United Fruit Company—we call its remnants Chiquita now, or Dole—north along the East Coast, so here at last was a vivid tableau of life on the other side of the shipping route. For those who lack interest in the workings of United Fruit, Kushner adds plenty of adultery, racism, and other bad behavior of gringos displaced in the pursuit of capitalism. If that’s not enough for you: Well, one night in a tent in the hills, Fidel Castro humps the arms dealer.
No real-life political leaders fuck fictional ex-Nazis in Kushner’s new novel, The Flamethrowers, but we are still in the clutch of history. The novel opens on the road in Italy during World War I; T. P. Valera, member of a motorcycle battalion called the Arditi, is raiding his dead partner’s bike for parts. A hostile German comes out of the woods, and Valera tackles him, killing him with a headlamp to the skull. Two pages later we’re in Nevada, 1976, en route to the Utah salt flats with a different sort of rider, a twenty-two-year-old artist called Reno (not her real name, but what her friends in New York City have nicknamed her because that’s where she’s from), intent on making art out of the tracks her motorcycle leaves in the ground.
What’s the connection? It turns out to be both thematic and personal. The Flamethrowers is about machines (motorcycles and guns, but also cameras) and the way they revolutionized the last century (its politics and violence, but also its art). And T. P. Valera is the father of Reno’s boyfriend, Sandro, as well as the founder of the company that manufactures the motorcycle she’s riding, a Moto Valera. In Telex from Cuba, Kushner took up a particular historical episode unwinding in a certain place and presented it from multiple angles. Here she’s more concerned with a set of ideas and how they move through time, and especially with where they end up. It’s a trickier task for the novelist: how to graft a cluster of themes onto a handful of characters in a few (in this case, far-flung) places, and how to set it off so it works as drama, not simply as a history lesson. Any writer who set herself this task would be in for a rough ride.
Kushner puts a lot of weight on T. P. Valera. He and his family embody history—especially the ways technology and art are entwined with capitalism. He’s first with the Arditi, then a member of a Futurist art scene; after the war he becomes a designer of motorcycles and ultimately an industrialist. He founds a firm that, as far as I could tell, has no real-life counterpart, but reads like a blend of Ducati, Ferrari, and Pirelli Tires. He has dealings with Mussolini, and helps the Italian government build national highways. He sets up rubber farms in Brazil and has a hand in the founding of Brasília, itself a kind of massive Futurist art project. He also fathers two sons: Roberto, who will run his company, and Sandro, who will move to New York to become an artist. He’s groomed them for these roles: “He trained Roberto in the details of profits and losses”; he exposed Sandro, at a young age, to labor strikes, “workers coming at them with clubs,” not the sort of thing that gives a boy dreams of becoming a CEO. The senior Valera has his reasons: “Because you are going to be an artist, his father said. And it was important to establish that you aren’t suited to anything else. That’s what artists are, his father said, those who are useless for anything else.”
The story of the Valera family is told in discrete, occasional flashbacks—patches of what might have been an epic, if a novelist today could write an epic of capitalist triumph and keep a straight face. Most of The Flamethrowers is narrated by Reno and details her life in New York along with trips to the desert, where we first see her, and to Italy, for a reckoning with the Valera family. The passages about Sandro’s father, told in the third person, read as if they could be Reno’s imagining of him; they serve as an intellectual background to Kushner’s portrait of the artist as a young woman. “It was an irony but a fact,” Reno says, “that a person had to move to New York City first, to become an artist of the West.” Reno grew up working-class; her mother was a switchboard operator, and her father walked out when she was three. She was raised by her mother and her uncle Bobby, a dump-truck driver who “spent his final moments of life jerking his leg to depress the clutch while lying in a hospital, his body determined to operate his dump truck, clutching and shifting gears as he sped toward death on a hospital gurney.” (I spent the summer I was eighteen driving dump trucks, which, luckily for me, had automatic transmissions.) At night, Uncle Bobby “sat inexplicably”—perhaps also implausibly—“nude watching TV and made us operate the dial for him, so he wouldn’t have to get up.”
It was, in other words, a crummy childhood; Reno escapes first to art school at the University of Nevada, Reno, with a junior year abroad in Florence (not bad for a dump-truck driver’s niece, and convenient for the book’s passages in Italy), and then to New York. She gets a studio on Mulberry Street and a job in a film studio on the Bowery, where she also works as a China girl: the term for a model whose face is used as “a printing reference for Caucasian skin” in movie color corrections.
It’s there that she’s noticed by Sandro Valera: “older by fourteen years and a successful artist, tall and good-looking in his work clothes and steel-toed boots . . . a guy with a family inheritance who could use a nail gun, a drill press, a person not made effete by money, who dressed like a worker or sometimes a bum but was elegant in those clothes.” That first phrase, “successful artist,” signals that, like many neophyte New Yorkers (and many highly advanced ones), Reno is acutely status conscious. She knows he’s a big deal and that her ticket to the party is to be on his arm. She’s also, so Sandro assures his gallerist friends, ready to pick up the torch from Robert Smithson and the Land artists. Their coupling is the novel’s way in to the SoHo art world of the ’70s, where Reno goes to openings attended by “Larry Zox, Larry Poons, Larry Bell, Larry Clark, Larry Rivers, and Larry Finkle. And they’re all talking to one another! This is some kind of historic moment.”
Beyond these real-life walk-ons (there’s also a trip to the Chelsea Hotel, among other actual places), Kushner offers up several ways of being an artist. Reno is all potential, but she’s also conceptually coherent: Her work will be an idealized recapitulation of her origins, the “slag-heap world of the West.” She’ll use film and still photography to make a record of the place she came from and the marks she leaves in the desert with the wheels of her motorcycle, and all this will be filtered through the ideas she picks up in Manhattan, which bear little resemblance to what she learned in art school. Sandro’s work is similarly conceptual: “large aluminum boxes, open on top, empty inside, so bright and gleaming their angles melted together.” These boxes, made to Sandro’s specifications in a Connecticut factory, are a Minimalist commentary on his own inheritance as a scion of industry. Then there’s Giddle, by all appearances a waitress at a coffee shop where Reno is a regular, but actually a “crypto-bohemian,” a refugee from Warhol’s Factory whose life has become a form of performance in toto. By becoming a waitress instead of just playing one, “I became authentic,” she tells Reno. Giddle is a font of downtown wisdom: “The three most cowardly acts,” she tells Reno, are “to exhibit ambition, to become famous, or to kill yourself.”
Is it any surprise that Reno, landing south of Houston Street in the mid-1970s, finds herself in the middle of one big authenticity contest? The social codes of Kushner’s ’70s Manhattan aren’t too far removed from those of today, except without the cell phones and with a bit more gun fetishizing than you find lately on Broome Street. Sandro occasionally packs a revolver in his boot—it’s another aspect of his industrial legacy—and at one point draws it to shoot a mugger in the hand. But he’s not all aggression. The novel hinges on his romance with Reno. On their first date, walking around the meatpacking district, Sandro rescues a drowning bum from the Hudson River. It’s a cap to a romantic day of eating lotus-paste buns and dropping in to a Chinatown cinema, where Sandro puts his hand on Reno’s knee:
While the movie played, Sandro leaned over and whispered to me.
“Do you want to be friends? Is it a good idea?”
I whispered back that I had a requirement for friendship.
“I’m glad,” he said. “It’s good to have standards. What is it?”
“Sincerity,” I said.
He then sincerely places his coat over her lap, puts his hand down her skirt, and does the sort of thing at which he proves to be supremely generous.
Reno is ever earnest, and Sandro strains himself in his efforts at sincerity. To Reno, Sandro may be a hunk as well as a mentor, but on the page, he often comes off as a brooding, taciturn, poor little rich boy. The mood is lifted when Reno first visits his loft (in the former dress factory he owns) and meets his best friend, Ronnie Fontaine, who speaks with an ironic flair, as if he were a character imported from some other novel, perhaps one by Don DeLillo. He’s a liar, inventing stories about running away on a boat as a teenager, and an unrepentant womanizer. In this way, he’s the polar opposite of Giddle; he has no need to become authentic, because his persona and his art trade on inauthenticity. Before she meets Sandro, Reno goes to bed with Ronnie, without learning his name, and he leaves with her Borsalino hat—which, when she sees it on another girl, acts as a roving metaphor for New York promiscuity. After she is properly introduced to Ronnie, with whom Sandro used to work as an overnight guard at the Met, she gets the scoop: “Ronnie and his women were a bit like Ronnie and his clothes.” Ronnie has spent the money he’s earned from his first sold-out gallery show (he takes pictures of the inside of his oven that look like starscapes, and also of battered women) on a hundred pairs of jeans, five hundred T-shirts, and five hundred pairs of underwear and socks: “He was never doing laundry again.”
Doing laundry is sort of like emotional commitment; some have a taste for it, and others drop off. Putting this in such explicit, if absurd, terms is a winning formula for Kushner, whose most charming quality is a willingness to digress and to stage long set pieces, at parties and in bars, in which her more eccentric characters are allowed to talk, and talk, and talk. At a party, a tape recorder is turned on, and the guests are entranced by Stanley Kastle’s monologue about real estate:
Home. We say “home,” not “house.” You never hear a good agent say “house.” A house is where people have died on the mattresses. Where pipes freeze and burst. Where termites fall from the sink spigot. Where somebody starts a flue fire by burning a telephone book in the furnace. Where banks repossess. Where mental illness takes hold. A home is something else. Do not underestimate the power in the word “home.” Say it. “Home.” It’s like the difference between “rebel” and “thug.” A rebel is a gleaming individual in tight Levi’s, a sneering and pretty face. The kind Sal Mineo wet-dreams. A thug is hairy and dark, an object that would sink to the bottom when dropped in a lake.
One of the book’s chapters breaks with both Reno’s life in New York and the history of the Valera family to rehash the activities of the Motherfuckers, an anarchist collective (a fictional one) that wreaked havoc on the Lower East Side between 1966 and 1971. Launching raids from their squat on East Tenth Street, they rob banks, firebomb a chain shoe store (it’s closed), beat up the Stooges, and kill a slumlord. One of their members, Burdmoore Model, shows up on Reno’s scene to slag off Allen Ginsberg, quote the (fictional) theorist Moishe Bubalev, and have an affair with Giddle.
These antic bits are a jolting contrast with the voice of Reno herself, who at her worst moments sounds like this: “Fall had arrived, and a feeling of hope and freshness suffused the city.” Her voice is closer to the sections in Kushner’s first novel told by the innocent teenager Everly Lederer than to those of the double-crossing showgirl Rachel K. It’s strange, then, that Kushner puts Reno’s failed relationship with Sandro (not much of a spoiler there; his sincerity snaps as soon as he feels a friendly “hand on a cock”) at the center of The Flamethrowers. It collapses with all the weight of yesterday’s blog post: “You love egotistical jerks,” Ronnie tells Reno. And for all of her working-class bona fides and bohemian aspirations, she’s really looking for that middle-class staple: faithful monogamy. You picked the wrong playboy, hon.
The affair does facilitate Reno’s adventures: Sandro procures her the motorcycle she rides in Utah, where she also breaks the female land-speed record, in the company car, becoming the fastest woman on earth. The episode also reconnects her to the working class, in the form of the Valera road crew, who slow down their work in solidarity with a strike in Italy. When Sandro takes her to Italy, and after he betrays her, she witnesses the riots spurred by the Red Brigades, falls in with the protesters, and gets teargassed. It’s once she joins the protesters that she experiences another form of abandonment. The experience of being left behind, first conveyed in the image of Karen Black being left by Jack Nicholson at the end of Five Easy Pieces (one of several films that receive readings within the novel), turns out to be crucial—perhaps more so than any commitments, personal, political, or artistic. When Reno returns to New York, she’s going to parties on her own, and leaving them. “You’re ditching my opening,” Ronnie says to her late in the novel. “Fuck you” is her response. “He laughed. ‘You really are growing up.’”
And it can be said that Kushner is growing up, too. In Telex from Cuba she relied heavily on children’s perspectives and on the experiences of her mother, who spent four years in pre-revolutionary Cuba as an adolescent, and of the son of a United Fruit manager who grew up there. No doubt she did her homework for The Flamethrowers, too (from basic Italian labor strikes to advanced Brazilian rubber trees), but much of the novel is only a couple short decades removed from the eight years she lived in New York as a graduate student and an editor. Her style is a rare blend of romanticism and historicism—with a sense of precision verging on the dutiful. I’d be curious to see what would happen if she turned her eye to the sort of history that unfolds in the present.
Christian Lorentzen is an editor at the London Review of Books.