Blog-a-rama Review Complete: Rachel Kushner’s “The Flame Throwers”


Posts now re-sorted into chronological order:


When you get terrific riffs of prose like this from Reno the girl biker narrator…

“At a Mexican restaurant across the road from the motel, I ordered fish, which came whole. I picked around, not sure of the appropriate method, and finally decided to cut off the head. It sat on my plate like a shorn airplane fuselage. In its cavern, instead of menthol-smelling pilots, the dark muck of its former fish mind…”

…and more stuff like…

“ALL VEHICLES WITH LIVESTOCK MUST BE WEIGHED. I passed the weigh station, breezed through third gear and into the midrange of fourth, hitting seventy miles an hour. I could see the jagged peaks of tall mountains, stale summer snow filtered by desert haze to the brownish tone of pantyhose. I was going eighty…”

…you have to realize you’re in the midst of something special.  It’s a novel to bring you out of the fiction reader’s doldrums.  So far, Rachel Kushner’s book is off the charts for being, well, damn good.

Okay. There will be updates to this as I slowly journey through the novel.  As background, I steered clear of  her “Telex from Cuba” when it came out, because of reviews saying it was narrated in several voices, a style some of us don’t prefer.  Now, it’s likely I’ll  go back and read it. Something as powerfully written as “The Flame Throwers” will do an author the ultimate favor: it will fire up readers to buy everything else they have on the market.


This is a terrific book – I don’t mean otherwise, but the virtuoso performance of the early chapters makes me ask: is a pace like that sustainable? I’ll get to that.

But on a darker note, in relation to thousands of unknown writers far from Kushner’s league who struggle and try desperately to win an agent query (and are limited often to submittal only of chapter 1 or the first several pages ), do these writers have a tendency to try and top-load their first chapter?  Just to try and win attention? Do they leave any mojo for chapter 2 or 10 or 22? Is it no longer sufficient to have a hook and an engaging voice? Does it mean now we also need exquisite writing, top-drawer imagery, a skillfully condensed presentation of the book’s synopsis, and some brand new stunning take on the world, all packed in the very beginning?  Is the result a more literate package or something trending toward gimmickry? Is the tail wagging the dog?

Moving along, I have no concerns about Flame Throwers losing momentum.  The high quality is sustained, one-third through the book where my marker presently sits.  I’m reading a masterful account of a young person’s immersion into a big city’s way of doing things, how people interact as strangers hoping to become friends.  A world where mannerisms mean nothing, only art and substance in this crowd. Some time jogs back to the Red Guard are interspersed, making me glad I read other reviews and expect it. The reader interest factor is much more more ablaze (like the cover’s colors) when we’re right there with Reno as she makes her way in the city scene, from film leader China Girl to…who knows. There’s more of Giddle the pedantic Aunt-type waitress than I want, and if Giddle’s over-grilled,  it may be a thematic device indicating Giddle’s cynicism is something drummed into us and easily embraced yet eventually something to be avoided. Meanwhile, Reno is sandwiched with two male friends of varying radicalism, not that this concerns her too much.  Danger doesn’t exist.  Loneliness exists. She’s young and fearless and willing, whether getting a female-version hand job in the movie theater, or riding her Valera bike into speeds of even higher abandon. It’s all very compelling stuff.


In an online interview Kushner refers to herself as a “fabulist.” That’s becoming more evident in the middle sections. We get to read the woman-struck-by-meteorite at the kitchen table digression, for one.

Earlier there is an inventive depiction of Valera’s erstwhile friend Lonzi in Sao Paolo, Brazil. The imagery is cinematic, rich with connotations:

“They sat in wicker chairs, he and the men in linen, the woven caning of their chairbacks blooming up behind them like gigantic doodled wings. Nearby, something called an umbrella bird crouched inside an enormous cage, a shiny black thing that kept fanning itself out, menacing and ugly…”

At the same time, Kushner can also put out a striking image of historical verisimilitude:

“Mussolini was hung from the girders of an Esso station in the Piazzale Loreto in Milan. He was next to his lover and a small coterie, all hung upside down …like Parma hams.”

The dinner scene at the Kastles plays relentlessly ahead like a long abstract anthem. We’re brought into it, there at the varnished picnic table raised like some sort of holy pyramid object through the elevator shaft. It seems every little thing has its micro-story at this point. We can empathize with Stanley’s saturation with words as he weeps at the table. The scene relating an audio tape about a couple with an amputee sexual hangup goes on too long, but otherwise the reading locks us in.

One day I’ll return and read parts again. The feeling is much like the one I felt when reading Franzen’s “The Corrections” for the first time.  There are so many good passages of writing to explore and analyze. I had my own image of Amy Hungerford coming to the Kastles’ party and illuminating us with color commentary.

I look forward to completing the book (no, I  do and I don’t) and will report more next time.


Found a couple of typo’s, kind of surprising in a book of this marketing scale. My mind drifts from the page and I wonder about the smaller font’s effect. I sort of slog and skip through the street radicals section. Along the way my sleepy narrowing eyes widen when I come across one of Kushner’s dandy simile’s. Some comparisons (such as the hair curlers image: “like a tarp over a log pile…the hollow spaces for hope”) remind me of Raymond Chandler’s: original, robust, and well-placed. Meanwhile only Ronnie seems to be dynamic on the page at this point in the novel. The guy purportedly enamored with her, Sancho or Cilantro or whatever his name is, needs to step up to the plate and show us something.  Is this a book with vacuous males? I still wonder about Reno’s deal, too. Who is she?


Chapter 14 is lengthy and brilliant: all the rich details and imagery and interactions on the Valera family estate in Italy.  Eyes locked on the pages again, not drifting. The matriarch is perfectly portrayed. I dig the old novelist. You can sense something amiss with Talia. Roberto is more real than his brother.


Cilantro or Sontoro or Sominex, or whatever his name is, got caught with his pants down, as expected.  This gives Reno more impetus to be a grrr-irl and get back to bike riding.

But then Reno is in Rome with a lawn jockey. Dimi has been kidnapped and things are getting dicy and insecure for all. I still wonder what Reno’s  deal is, i.e. what the hell does she really want?


The end sections are well constructed, story-efficient and in more places than one lyrically sublime. I won’t talk about them beyond that. So this is the last post.

Earlier in chapter 16, maybe it’s the obligatory action climax section. The Red Guard apartment scenes and the dramatic street riot scenes have a reporting sound. There are a few scattered highlights. One is Kushner’s vivid description of the young singer (she’s represented by the girl photo’d on the cover) standing to project her “Callas-like” voice in the midst of chaos.

Things get a bit romance-novelish and breathless (and again towards book’s end) when Reno encounters Gianni again. Then we find out Gianni is banging one of the other girls. Reno can’t hold a guy, it seems, or maybe she’s mistakenly attracted to too many philadering types. Who knows about Italian men – or any damn man – anyway, the substrata message seems to say. Reno has certainly played both sides of the fence and put herself in the midst of the rich bourgeois and the threadbare proletariat, gallery power-brokers and criminal desperados. If nothing else, she has more source material for her art.

Story delivery is story delivery. The main attraction to me for this book is that it’s a terrific display of creative American writing. Style and intelligence behind the prose, a writer coming into their own. If the agents and the market weren’t driven so much by storyline and profit, Rachel Kushner could be our 21st century Proust.  Or maybe our James Joyce.  She’s that good.