The Flamethrowers is the story of “Reno” (not her real name) as she tries to go from small town western gal to big city artist. She moves to New York City after graduation from her small art program and lives on her own, imagining all of the excitement that she will have once she finds a crowd and fits in. Eventually she does find that crowd, a crowd that is coincidentally perfect for her. It just so happens that she loves motorcycles and Italian and wants to create land art. She is “discovered” by Sandro Valera, accomplished artist and Italian heir to a motorcycle mogul. Oh, and he has an interest in land art. And an interest in beautiful younger women. He sweeps her into the 70s New York art scene, and later, accidentally into the radical elements of Italy during the country’s Years of Lead. Think the Red Brigade and molotov cocktails that utilize espresso makers.
The plot is at times thrilling, at other times simply heady as you get to peep behind the curtains at late 70s evenings at the Chelsea Hotel, at the kind of games that drunk artsy people play. There are also moving scenes of the American west and a peek into the lifestyles of the rich and famous in Italy. If there’s one thing this novel has it’s enjoyable, if dark, escapist fun.
What I didn’t enjoy, initially, was the narration. The book is mostly told from the first person point of view of Reno, except for a few exceptional chapters primarily told from the point of view of Sandro’s father. Reno’s point of view was full of pithy M.F.A. aphorisms that were far too clever. I only have the experience of my own mind to pull from, but in my experience, my running narration is more like, “Wow, I’m bored. I wonder what’s for dinner. I kind of need to pee. No, I’ll wait until this episode of the West Wing is over.” Beautiful, deep-sounding interior dialogue from characters is one of my pet peeves and this book was strong in that area. Let’s just say I think that next year, this will be a primary candidate for the Tournament of Books.
I got over my problem with the narration as I got deeper into the plot. As she entered Sandro’s alternate universe, she became an observer, giving up herself to simply try to absorb whatever magic these artists had that allowed them to just be so cool. She began relaying more of their dialogue, more physical observations, and I was able to sink in. I began to remember similar good times in my life, I began to let my pet peeves go . But this is when my deeper problem with the narration became evident. I knew everything the narrator thought about everything and I knew the things she loved, but I didn’t know her. I didn’t even know her name. I didn’t know how people thought of her, I didn’t know how she reacts in social situations. She says what the other characters tell her but she does not give response. Is she rude? Talkative? Shy? She presents herself as an emotional blank slate. Usually this is a writerly technique to allow the reader to imprint themselves upon the character and deepen their sympathies. Except it doesn’t work in this case. Reno is so strongly defined by her hobbies and her background. Even her moniker derives directly from one of the elements that makes her unique. It’s hard to slip myself into her leather jacket.
So what we get is a book about political action where the heroine appears to have no political feeling. And maybe she doesn’t and that’s the point. A point I miss because I can only ever see her actions obliquely, so I have to imprint my personality on her, and I could never ever be apathetic. Apathy is a prerequisite in her art crowd. She implies that she is only feigning it, but it is hard to tell because she’s gotten so good.
Despite my complaints herein, I still give the book 4 stars. There is absurdity and humor and warmth. And violence. The moments of violence punctuating the novel are beautifully written and make the diffidence of the narration seem more purposeful. The characters don’t care for the world, but the world keeps asking them to care. With muggings and rape and attack dogs. This dissonance is what makes the novel powerful.