The Artist as a Young Biker Babe
In Rachel Kushner's The Flamethrowers, a motorcyclist-artist-chick revs through the 1970s NYC art world.

I liked this book. It has some great themes—motorcycles, 1970s NYC, the art world, idealism of technology, and how to trust men. Or, how to trust men. How not to trust men. OK: how not to trust men, and the art of motorcycle maintenance.

The narrator—known only by her nickname, Reno—is a young woman from the West who moves East to be an artist. She gets together with a hot, well-connected older guy, kind of loses her way with her own work and process (it being the ‘70s, she is all about process). After some pretty wild adventures at home and abroad she ends up with… hmm, wisdom? I’ll just say, some solid life experiences. It’s a classic plotline for a reason.

I’ll read this type of [simple] young person’s story over and over again, even if the novelists of the world want to dress it up for me. In the case of The Flamethrowers, author Rachel Kushner has done a nice job with the setting and themes. The female artist-narrator here happens to be a badass motorcycle racer with sweet looks and personality, so we’re told by one admirer, who says she has a face meant to advertise cake. In the book’s opening act, she sets a land-speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats on her bike, then photographs the tracks as an Earth Art “drawing.” This first section is intercut with many expository reminiscences of her life before and after that event, almost too many—with too many metaphors—but such great metaphors.

Back in New York, she gets involved with a playboy artist from a super wealthy industrialist family in Italy. Here, the story becomes more weighty, and dives into the history of how the playboy’s grandfather built his business empire during the First World War, leading to the scorn of many of the “regular” and all of the leftist radical Italians, and later leads to the narrator and her boyfriend’s adventures when they go over to Italy for a visit.

It’s a lot of plot—I didn’t even mention what’s going on back in 1970’s downtown NYC with the playboy’s moody best friend and their colorful art-world cronies—but Kushner intertwines her stories into one large artful thing that is more than just men and motorcycles. Check it out.