Reading Group Guide
This Scribner reading group guide for The Flamethrowers includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
The young and impressionable unnamed narrator of The Flamethrowers, occasionally referred to by other characters as “Reno,” grew up in that Nevada town, riding motorcycles with her rough and tumble cousins, and studied fine art at the University of Nevada. When she moves to New York in 1975 with little more than a camera, she finds a fast-paced downtown art world of makers, fakers, manipulators, lovers, and friends. She begins dating a golden boy of that world, Sandro Valera, an artist and wealthy heir to an Italian motorcycle fortune. For an art project, ‘Reno’ rides a Moto Valera in the land speed trials on the Bonneville Salt Flats. She is invited to travel with the Valera race team in Italy, but when she goes to Sandro’s ancestral estate to meet his family, she discovers a rift she can’t bridge, one that sends her spiraling through betrayal, and into a radical scene in Rome.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Reno wants to create Land Art in the manner of iconic artists like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer. Why does she leave the West, where both of those famous figures chose to make their work, for New York City? Is the contemporary art world accessible to most people? Or is it somewhat elitist?
2. On her trip back West for the speed trials at the Bonneville salt flats, Reno watches a couple literally playing with fire at a gas station. A man flicks matches at spilled gasoline on his girlfriend’s legs. In another scene, a truck driver tells Reno she won’t look nearly as good in a body bag. What do these interactions imply about the world Reno inhabits?
3. Reno reflects that Stretch, the maintenance man at the motel near the salt flats, had said her name “like he believed he knew her.” And yet readers never learn her actual name. Why do you think the author chose to leave her nameless? Would we know her better if we knew the name that Stretch uttered?
4. Were you surprised Reno wiped out on the salt flats? Why or why not?
5. What first got Sandro’s father into motorcycles? To what extent was his lustful desire for Marie a factor?
6. As a young person, Sandro’s father encounters a gang of subversives in Rome. What are these rabble-rousers rejecting about the “old” Italy? What is exciting to them about machines, and the future? About going to fight in World War One? Are their expectations about the war met, or not?
7. Giddle, who claims to work at a coffee shop as a kind of conceptual performance, tells Reno the most cowardly acts are to exhibit ambition, to become famous, and to kill yourself. Is this yet one more performance, or is there some honesty in what she says? Do you have the sense that Giddle is more naïve than Reno, or less? More or less wise to the ways of the art world? To the ways of men?
8. Reno is a “China girl” on film stock leader, which her boss Marvin says is “as much a part of the film as its narrative,” despite her being unseen and in the margin. Is there any thematic echo of this in Reno’s presence in the novel? She is the narrator, but often others (mostly men) with stronger personalities drown her out. Perhaps find an image of a China girl online and talk about these mysterious film lab secretaries who posed in the now gone era of celluloid film.
9. How would you describe the relationship between Stanley Kastle and his wife Gloria? Do you think their behavior and antagonism is a kind of game, or something darker?
10. Is it simply bad luck to be hit with a meteorite while sitting in the kitchen? If so, why does Reno imagine the scenario of a bored housewife regarding it as something special, a kind of destiny?
11. Reno says that the smell of gasoline on the crowd of people in Rome—and the disconnect between that world and the one she grew up in—made her “sad for Scott and Andy in a way [she] could not explain” (284). If you had to explain it for her, what would you say?
12. The theme of time seems to crop up in various ways. Reno says that “curler time was about living the now with a belief that a future, an occasion for set hair, existed.” What do you think she means? Is Reno herself in “curler time”? Meanwhile, Sandro’s father says that unlike men, women “are trapped in time.” What makes him say this? Do you agree with him?
13. Do you think Ronnie is being unfair when he “demonstrates” for Reno “the uselessness of the truth”? Or do you think she had it coming? Is Ronnie a sympathetic character despite being incapable of sincerity?
14. Why do you think we suddenly hear from Sandro directly, near the close of the novel? Does he sufficiently account for his choices, when he shares with the reader his “side” of things?
15. After waiting all day for Gianni to ski down into France, Reno gives up in order to move on “to the next question.” (383) How has Reno changed by the end of the novel, and why do you think the author chose to end on this melancholy and ambiguous note? Would it have been more satisfying if Reno had triumphed by the end, found her way to love and success? Or would you have felt manipulated?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Bring in some books on Futurist art, Italian design, modernist architecture (especially in Milan and Brasilia), and Minimalism, to enhance discussions of Sandro’s art and his father’s industrial design in The Flamethrowers.
2. Take a look at the spring 2013 issue of the Paris Review, whose art Kushner curated—a suite of images that inspired her as she wrote the novel (you can also access it online, at http://www.theparisreview.org/art-photography/6197/the-flamethrowers-rachel-kushner).
3. Watch the wonderful and sad 1970 movie Wanda, by Barbara Loden, which Reno watches in chapter twelve of The Flamethrowers, but never names. Another movie recommendation: the documentary On Any Sunday, starring Steve McQueen, a fascinating timepiece of early 1970s motorcycle riding.
4. Share stories of your experiences, if you’ve had them, of going to any of the places in the book–the salt flats, New York City, Lake Como, Rome. Also, your experiences of being alone on a road trip, whether by car, motorcycle, bus, etc.
5. Serve a spaghetti and wine dinner with your reading group. Buon appetito!