The opening scene of The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner takes place near the Isonzo River in northern Italy during the First World War, 1917. An Italian motorcyclist called Valera is fighting an anonymous German trooper hand-to-hand after the cyclist stopped to salvage parts for his American made Pope motorcycle. After a fierce struggle, Valera KOs the German with a headlamp and, with the scarce part in hand, Valera heroically rides off to return to the battle. Valera survived World War I with his interest in motorcycles intact, and went on to found the Valera Company, which became a premier Italian company selling racing motorcycles and rubber tires throughout the world. (Think of this fictional company as a combination of Pirelli Tires and Ducati Motorcycles).
Kushner’s story then moves to Nevada and 1976. Reno a young art school graduate packed her Bolex Pro movie camera and sold her beloved ‘65 Moto Valera to buy a ticket to New York where she planned to make movies. Like a fairy tale, one year later, her dreams have nearly come true; she has a job with a small movie studio and she is back in Nevada on a brand new Moto Valera GT650 (a gift from her boy friend Sandro Valero the wealthy grandson of the founder of the Valera Company). She is heading to Bonneville Speedway to ride the Moto Valera over a measured mile, and capture the experience on film.
Thinking back to 1976: that year the US detonated an atomic bomb in the Nevada desert, and the USSR retaliated with an underground explosion at their North Test Site at the edge of the Arctic Circle . Thus, the Cold War returned to its shaky balance. In Italy, home of the Valera Company, the Red Brigade (Brigate Rosse in Italian) was waging an armed insurrection against the corrupt government, and workers were on strike. In The Flamethrowers Kushner writes that the Red Brigade is menacing the Valera Company, run by Sandro’s brother Roberto. Flaming Molotov cocktails are the Red Brigade’s favorite weapon; call them the Flamethrowers.
Oblivious to these world events, Reno rides across the Nevada desert crouched behind the windshield of her new Valera motorcycle. She is driving fast, too fast, as she heads east on US Highway 95 from the Reno towards the Bonneville.
Needing gas, Reno slows the motorcycle, pulls off the highway into a truck stop and breaks to a stop along side a truck where some truckers are gathered:
One of the truckers spoke to me as he passed. “That yours?”
For a moment, I thought he meant the truck. But he tipped his chin toward the Moto Valera.
I said yes and kept braiding my hair.
He smiled in a friendly way. “You know what?”
I smiled back.
“You won’t look nearly so good when they’re loading you off the highway in a body bag.”
A body bag was the fate of Rebecca the doomed heroine of the 1968 movie The Girl On A Motorcycle, who crashes her motorcycle into a truck and dies tragically. Thinking of the trucker’s remarks, Reno pulls out of the truck stop going east toward Bonneville. As she accelerates she finds herself blocked by a Greyhound Bus:
I passed the bus, shifted into fifth, and hit ninety, the orange needle steady on the face of my black speedometer. I tucked down into my little faring. I loved that faring the moment I saw the bike at the dealer in Reno, where I picked it up. Metal-flake teal, the color of deep freeze. It was a brand new 650 Supersport. It was actually a ‘77 –next year’s model. It was so new no one in the United States had one but me. I had never seen a Moto Valera this color. The one I’d owned in college, a ’65, had been white.
— The Flamethrowers
Reno rides on down the road to continue her charmed fictional existence, and she has unexpected success at the track–she got a ride on the Valera world record speedster Spirit of Italy. This part of the story reminds us of the world record runs of Spirit of America driven by Craig Breedlove. Craig’s wife Lee also drove Spirit to the woman’s record speed of 308.506 mph over the measured course at Bonneville. Imagine riding a motorcycle at over 300 mph!
When Reno first left Nevada to go to New York she discovered, like so many others, that the city is a lonely place. As she gradually settled in she found a job as a receptionist with a small movie company. Literally, it was her skin color that got her the job, she was hired to be the company’s China Girl (her picture, taken holding a standard color pattern, was attached to each movie negative to help technicians balance skin tones on new prints).
In New York Reno met and fell in love with Sandro Valero an established Minimalist artist and (unknown to Reno) womanizer. The plot follows the lines of the 1999 movie Guinevere, where the ingénue falls in love with older artist who deceives her, but, in a neat plot twist, Reno is invited to Italy to ride the Spirit of Italy for a press promotion and Sandro must follow. The most dramatic events of the novel take place in Italy.
Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers is an imaginative tale that takes the reader from the Nevada desert to the New York art scene of the late ‘70s. Then, Reno and her artist lover travel to Italy to meet his aristocratic family. Reno tries to fit in with his family on their palatial estate, but everything gets turned upside down when the Red Brigades make a lethal appearance.
The Flamethrowers is an entertaining novel. Reno’s story is a fairy tale full of unlikely coincidences—she is “the China Girl on an Italian motorcycle.”
Notes: 1. The author published an essay in The Paris Review #203, Winter 2012, in which she discusses the sources she used in writing The Flamethrowers. I strongly recommend the essay to readers interested in the background and evolution of the novel. In this essay Kushner discusses the novel’s cover artwork—I, however, was not convinced. I think the cover is ugly; read the book, but ignore the cover.
2. China Girl/Leader Lady: the photographs of (most often) women that appear in the countdown that begins every reel of motion picture film. Film lab workers used the images to register color values when copying prints. The illustration is from the Northwest Chicago Film Society collection.