The Flamethrowers

The Flamethrowers



The Pequod Review:

The Flamethrowers is one of the great novels of 1970s Manhattan, the city a character itself, and Rachel Kushner’s narrative is exhilarating and alive as she describes the adventures of a young woman (Reno) who moves from Nevada to New York City to pursue a career as an artist. 

Kushner’s prose is such a delight. Here at the beginning of the novel she describes the western landscape of Reno’s youth along with a gripping story that provides a window into her interests and passions. It is so well-written and well-structured that it is worth quoting in full:

On the short drive from town out to the salt flats, the high desert gleamed under the morning sun. White, sand, rose, and mauve — those were the colors here, sand edging to green in places, with sporadic bursts of powdery yellow, weedy sunflowers blooming three-on-the-tree.

The little gambling town’s last business was a compound of trailers orphaned on a bluff. LIQUOR AND DANCING AND NUDE WOMEN. I thought again of Pat Nixon, of underthings in a Pat Nixon palette. Faded peach, or lemon-bright chiffon. As a teenager in Reno, when I heard the words Mustang Ranch I pictured a spacious lodge with gold-veined mirrors and round beds, velvet-upholstered throw pillows shaped like logs. The actual Mustang Ranch was just a scattering of cruddy outbuildings, gloomy women with drug habits inside. Even after I understood what it was, it seemed natural enough to hear Mustang Ranch and imagine country luxury, sunken living rooms with wet bars, maybe someone putting on Wanda Jackson, “Tears at the Grand Ole Opry.” But they were listening to Top Forty in those places, or to the sound of the generator.

Beyond the access road off the interstate, a lake of white baked and shimmered, flaring back up at the sun like a knife blade turned flat. Pure white stretching so far into the distance that its horizon revealed a faint curve of the Earth. I heard the sonic rip of a military jet, like a giant trowel being dragged through wet concrete, but saw only blue above, a raw and saturated blue that seemed cut from an inner wedge of sky. The jet had left no contrail, just an enveloping sound that came from no single direction.  Another jet scraped the basin, high and invisible. I must have heard them in the night….

I wondered why the military didn’t claim the salt flats for themselves, for their own tests. I don’t know what kind of tests, but something involving heat, speed, thrust, the shriek of engines. American legend Flip Farmer had shot across these flats and hit five hundred miles an hour, driving a three-wheeled, forty-four-foot aluminum canister equipped with a jet engine from a navy Phantom. Why Flip, an ordinary citizen, and not the military? You’d think they would have wanted this place, a site of unchecked and almost repercussionless speed. But the military didn’t want an enormous salt desert. They gave it, more or less, to Flip Farmer, world land speed record holder.

Growing up, I loved Flip Farmer the like some girls loved ponies or ice skating or Paul McCartney. I had a poster above my bed of Flip and his winning car, the Victory of Samothrace…. 

When I was twelve, Flip came through Reno and gave out autographs at a casino. I didn’t have a glossy photo for him to sign, so I had him sign my hand. For weeks I took a shower with a plastic bag over that hand, rubber-banded at the wrist.  It wasn’t quite romantic infatuation. There are levels of readiness. Young girls don’t entertain the idea of sex, their body and another’s together. That comes later, but there isn’t nothing before it. There’s an innocent displacement, a dreaming, and idols are perfect for a little girl’s dreaming. They aren’t real. They aren’t the gas station attendant trying to lure you into the back of the service station, a paperboy trying to lure you into a toolshed, a friend’s father trying to lure you into his car. They don’t lure. They beckon, like desert mirages…

The year he came through Reno, Flip had barely escaped death as he’d made his land speed record on the salt. Just after he hit 522 miles per hour, his rear chute prematurely released. It blew out the back of the Victory and snapped off, sending the car veering to and fro between mile markers. He recovered, but with no chute, he had no way to slow down. He was still going five hundred miles an hour. He knew that if he even so much as tapped on the brakes they would melt and burn out, and then he’d have no brakes. They were designed for speeds of less than 150 miles per hour. He would have to let the car slow itself, but it wasn’t slowing. He realized, as he flew across the salt, almost frictionlessly, that it was all about to be over anyhow. So he used them. He tapped ever so slightly on the pedal with his left driving shoe. It sank to the floor. The car sailed onward, its speed unchecked. He pumped the brake, and nothing. Just the thunk of the pedal hitting the floor, the flat world running liquid beyond the clear plastic bubble-canopy.

He flew past mile zero, the end of the official racecourse…As he waited for death, having given up on pumping his nonbrakes, it occurred to him that the smoke was salt, aspirated to an airborne powder, having been ground by the wheels and forced up through the axles into the cramped cockpit of the car…. The car finally began to slow — to three hundred, to two hundred. But then he was shot up a ten-foot-high salt dike, which had been built when a drainage ditch was dug across the southern edge of the flats. The world went vertical. A quadrangle of plain, cloudless sky. A forced contemplation of the heavens, crisp and angelic blue, a classic prelude to death. If there had been just one puffy trawler, a little tugboat of a cloud, even so much as a cotton ball of vapor against the blue, he would have hoped. There was only blue. He was headed for the drainage ditch on the other side of the dike. It was filled with rainwater. The Victory slammed into it. As it sank, nose first, Flip desperately popped the canopy. There was no way he’d get the canopy open once the car was underwater. He tore off his oxygen mask and tried to unfold himself from the driver’s seat. He was caught….

So it continues through the rest of the novel, with writing that is vivid and gripping — and stories and characters so real that they seem part of the historical record, even though Flip Farmer and the rest are all fictional creations. Highly recommended.