The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner reminded me of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, one of my favorite books by Robert Pirsig. I believe it’s a book everyone claims to own, few read, and even fewer understand. Pirsig and Kushner’s book will both have this in common.
I have not always been a fan of these dense literary beacons, as they require a very patient reader and a Jedi mind trained master with a light saber to combat heavy literary doggerel. They are status books like Infinite Jest, by Wallace. A rare breed of writers can create them and a rare breed of readers can devour them taking something away.
Kushner’s main character Reno, a female motorcyclist with a need for speed and high-speed art, uses her motorcycle like musicians from the same period used trains as transporting analogies. Her ‘77 Moto Valera transporting her reader’s minds through the art boom in New York during the 70s’ and the violent 1977 movement in Italy. Tickets, please.
I picked up Pirsig’s Zen book after I crashed my first motorcycle in Miami. A car didn’t see me coming back from an early hour beach ride. My clutch hand was resting in my lap and when the car pulled out in front of me, I was unable to downshift a cog and engine brake. The car drilled me in front of a Dunkin Donuts and took off from the scene. I remember the Dunkin Donuts sign vividly. My bike, which had been purchased less than twenty-four hours earlier, went tearing out from under me, and what most people don’t realize about a motorcycle accident is the bike slides a lot faster than the rider. If it hadn’t hit the curb, it would still be sliding down Sunrise Blvd.
Once my motor pickle did stop shedding mental flakes through the intersection, I slid back into it. The gas tank had cracked and gasoline poured all over me. I remember looking at the Dunkin Donuts sign and thinking…fuck…really…I am going to burn to death in front of DD.
I managed to get the bike up and out of the road. The damn thing hadn’t been registered and I had been running with a fake license plate on the back. I dumped the bike in the bushes and limped away. Later, I came back to the scene and wheeled the bike to the garage where I had purchased it. They hid it for me until I could afford the repairs. For weeks, I had to pull the bedroom sheets from my road burned body like two-day-old band-aids mangled in hair.
Why I’m telling this story is because The Flamethrowers dragged me through the same stream of linear events.
It started as I cruised blissfully for the first fifty pages where Kushner writes with a poetic femininity that I have never seen before. She captures the organic rawness of her high-desert siren so beautifully that gender generality is left behind as she punches it into fourth gear. When I least expect it and unable to downshift, Kushner in the next 250 pages smashes me and nearly burns me to death. She unleashes Reno who wheelies through the New York art wave in Soho, a semi-crazed Italian lover, a land speed record, and into the passionate and aggressive 1977 movement in Italy. There Reno joins a group of radicals fighting against authoritarianism and repression and for gay liberation, education reform from the bourgeoisie, and the continued strengthening of the feminist movement. By the end, I am walking my bike to the garage with a hard limp.
Hands-down, The Flamethrowers is brilliant and easily one of the best books for the upcoming year.
With a modification of my favorite lines from Kushner, “This book is slick like a duck’s ass.”