The Flamethrowers follows Reno, newly graduated from art school and racing across the country on her sport motorcycle, photographing her cycle's tracks in the salt slicks of Nevada as she makes her way back to NYC and the wild art community that she has found herself amidst. It's a reactionary group of fakes and performance art so self-involved and ambitious that even the oh-so cool Reno can appear incredibly naive and out of her depth.
Kushner artfully creates an explosive cast of characters. New York's art community isn't just humming with life in this novel, it's stomping on your ceiling like an unruly neighbor's weekend party. The secondary characters' vignettes give Manhattan true vivacity from Reno's youthful perspective, as she searches for her niche amidst this rampaging assault of ideas and artistic/political statements. Simultaneously, the ventures of Sandro Valera's industrialist father after the fall of Mussolini concisely sets the scene of Italy's post fascist, decades long struggle.
It's Sandro Valera, Reno's Italian boyfriend, and his enigmatic friend Ronnie who inadvertently send her into the heart of violent political upheaval while visiting Sandro's mother near Milan. The riots and kidnappings in Rome hit extremely close to home as Reno gets pushed into the wrong group at a vicious time. By the end, you feel like Reno's excitement and curiosity have been weathered dramatically, as she seems even more the bewildered bystander than when she first found herself in NYC.
This novel is enormous with vitality and vulnerability. I think that's why I liked it so much. It beautifully conceives of the strength inherent in braving the unknown, even when you could potentially be taken so off course.