I walked out of the sun, unfastening my chin strap. Sweat was pooling along my collarbone, trickling down my back and into my nylon underwear, running down my legs under the leather racing suit. I took off my helmet and the heavy leather jacket, set them on the ground, and unzipped the vents in my riding pants.
I stood for a long time tracking the slow drift of clouds, great fluffy masses sheared flat along their bottom edges like they were melting on a hot griddle.
There were things I had no choice but to overlook, like wind effect on clouds, while flying down the highway at a hundred miles an hour. I wasn’t in a hurry, under no time constraint. Speed doesn’t have to be an issue of time. On that day, riding a Moto Valera east from Reno, it was an issue of wanting to move across the map of Nevada that was taped to my gas tank as I moved across the actual state. Through the familiar orbit east of Reno, the brothels and wrecking yards, the big puffing power plant and its cat’s cradle of coils and springs and fencing, an occasional freight train and the meandering and summer-shallow Truckee River, railroad tracks and river escorting me to Fernley, where they both cut north.
From there the land was drained of color and specificity, sage-tufted dirt and incessant sameness of highway. I picked up speed. The faster I went, the more connected I felt to the map. It told me that fifty-six miles after Fernley I’d hit Lovelock, and fifty-six miles after leaving Fernley I hit Lovelock. I moved from map point to map point. Winnemucca. Valmy. Carlin. Elko. Wells. I felt a great sense of mission, even as I sat under a truck stop awning, sweat rolling down the sides of my face, an anonymous breeze, hot and dry, wicking the damp from my thin undershirt. Five minutes, I told myself. Five minutes. If I stayed longer, the place the map depicted might encroach. A billboard across the highway said schaefer. when you’re having more than one. A bluebird landed on the branch of a sumac bush under the high-clearance legs of the billboard. The bird surfed its slack branch, its feathers a perfect even blue like it had been powder-coated at the factory. I thought of Pat Nixon, her dark gleaming eyes and ceremonial outfits stiff with laundry starch and beading. Hair dyed the color of whiskey and whipped into an unmoving wave. The bird tested out a short whistle, a lonely midday sound lost in the infinite stretch of irrigation wheels across the highway. Pat Nixon was from Nevada, like me, and like the prim little state bird, so blue against the day. She was a ratted beauty-parlor tough who became first lady. Now we would likely have Rosalynn Carter with her glassy voice and her big blunt friendly face, glowing with charity. It was Pat who moved me. People who are harder to love pose a challenge, and the challenge makes them easier to love. You’re driven to love them. People who want their love easy don’t really want love.
I paid for my gas to the sound of men in the arcade room playing a video game called Night Driver. They were seated in low-slung cockpits made of sparkling, molded fiberglass, steering jerkily, pale-knuckled, trying to avoid the guardrail reflectors on either side of the road, the fiberglass cockpits jiggling and rocking as the men attempted to steer themselves out of catastrophe, swearing and angrily bopping the steering wheel with the heel of a hand when they burned and crashed. It had been this way at several truck stops now. This was how the men rested from driving. Later I told Ronnie Fontaine. I figured it was something Ronnie would find especially funny but he didn’t laugh. He said, “Yeah, see. That’s the thing about freedom.” I said, “What?” And he said, “Nobody wants it.”
My uncle Bobby, who hauled dirt for a living, spent his final moments of life jerking his leg to depress the clutch while lying in a hospital, his body determined to operate his dump truck, clutching and shifting gears as he sped toward death on a hospital gurney. “He died on the job,” his two sons said, unmoved. Bobby was too mean for them to love. Scott and Andy had been forced to oil Bobby’s truck every Sunday and now he was dead and they had Sundays to themselves, to oil their own trucks. Bobby was my mother’s brother. Growing up, we’d all lived together. My mother worked nights, and Bobby was what we had as a parent. Done driving his dump truck, he sat inexplicably nude watching TV and made us operate the dial for him, so he wouldn’t have to get up. He’d fix himself a big steak and give us instant noodles. Sometimes he’d take us to a casino, leave us in the parking lot with bottle rockets. Or play chicken with the other cars on I-80, with me and Scott and Andy in the backseat covering our eyes. I come from reckless, unsentimental people. Sandro used this against me on occasion. He pretended I was placed in his life to torture him, when it was really the other way around. He acted smitten but I was the smitten one. Sandro held all the power. He was older by fourteen years and a successful artist, tall and good-looking in his work clothes and steel-toed boots—the same kinds of clothes that Bobby and Scott and Andy wore, but on Sandro they added up to something else: a guy with a family inheritance who could use a nail gun, a drill press, a person not made effete by money, who dressed like a worker or sometimes a bum but was elegant in those clothes, and never hampered by the question of whether he belonged in a given situation (the question itself was evidence of not belonging).
Sandro kept a photo above the desk in his loft, him posing on a couch next to Morton Feldman in his Coke-bottle glasses, Sandro looking cool and aloof, holding a raised, loaded shotgun, its barrel one long half of the letter X crossing the photograph diagonally. Slashing it. It was a black-and-white image but you could see that Sandro’s eyes were the whitish-blue of a wolf ’s, giving him a cold, sly intensity. The photo was taken in Rhinebeck, where his friends Gloria and Stanley Kastle had a place. Sandro was allowed to shoot guns on their property, various handguns and rifles he had collected, some of them made by his family’s company before they got out of the firearms business. Sandro liked shotguns most of all and said if you ever needed to actually kill someone, that was what you’d want, a shotgun. That was his way, to tersely let it be known in his light accent, barely Italian, that he could kill someone if he had to.
Women responded to this. They came on to him right in front of me, like the gallerist Helen Hellenberger, a severe but beautiful Greek woman who dressed as if it were permanently 1962, in a black shift and with upswept hair. We ran into her on Spring Street just before I departed for Reno to pick up the Moto Valera for this trip. Helen Hellenberger, in her tight dress and leather flats, holding her big leather pocketbook as if it were a toolbox, had said she wanted so badly to come to Sandro’s studio. Would she have to beg? She’d put her hand on his arm and it seemed as if she wasn’t going to let go until he said yes. Sandro was with the Erwin Frame Gallery. Helen Hellenberger wanted to steal him for her own gallery. He tried to redirect her by introducing me, not as his girlfriend but as “a young artist, just out of school,” as if to say, you can’t have me, but here’s something you might consider picking up. An offer she had to maneuver around in order to press on and get him to commit to the studio visit.
“With an art degree from . . . where?” she asked me.
“UNR,” I said. I knew she wouldn’t be familiar with the school’s initials.
“She’s influenced by Land Art,” Sandro said. “And her ideas are great. She made a beautiful film about Reno.”
Helen Hellenberger represented the best-known Land Artists, all midcareer, blue-chip, and so I felt especially self-conscious about Sandro’s insistence that she learn about me, my work. I wasn’t ready to show with Helen Hellenberger and in his pretending that I was, I felt Sandro was insulting me without necessarily intending to. It was possible he knew this. That he found some perverse humor in offering me in lieu of himself.
“Oh. Where did you say—” She was feigning a low-level politeness, just enough to satisfy him.
“Nevada,” I said.
“Well, now you can really learn about art.” She smiled at him as if depositing a secret between them. “If you’re with Sandro Valera. What a mentor for someone who’s just arrived from . . . Idaho?”
“Reno,” Sandro said. “She’s going out there to do a piece. Drawing a line across the salt flats. It’s going to be great. And subtle. She’s got really subtle ideas about line and drawing.”
He had tried to put his arm around me but I’d moved away. I knew how I looked to this beautiful woman who slept with half her roster, according to Ronnie Fontaine, who was on her roster himself: I was nothing but a minor inconvenience in her campaign to represent Sandro.
“So you’ll be going out West?” she’d asked before we parted ways, and then she’d questioned me about the particulars of my ride with an interest that didn’t quite seem genuine. Only much later did I think back to that moment, look at it. You’ll be going out of town? Reno, Idaho. Someplace far away.
When I was getting ready to depart, Sandro acted as if I might not be coming back, as if I were leaving him to solitude and tedium, a penance he’d resigned himself to enduring. He rolled his eyes about the appointment Helen Hellenberger had wrangled.
“I’ll be here getting eaten by vultures,” he said, “while you’re tearing across the salt flats, my unknown competitors drooling over you like stunned idiots. Because that’s what you do,” he’d said, “you inhibit thought. With your young electricity.”
When you’re having more than one. I sat at the truck stop, facing that billboard, naively thinking my young electricity was enough.
Helen Hellenberger’s stable of Land Artists included the most famous, Robert Smithson, who died three years earlier while I was a student at UNR. I had learned about him and the Spiral Jetty from an obituary in the newspaper and not from my art department, which was provincial and conservative (the truth in Helen’s snub was that I did learn more from Sandro than I had in art school). The foreman who built the Spiral Jetty was quoted explaining how tricky it had been to construct it on such soft mud, and that he had almost lost some very expensive equipment. He was risking men and front loaders and regretted taking the job, and then the artist shows up in the Utah summertime desert, it’s 118 degrees, and the guy is wearing black leather pants. Smithson was quoted declaring that pollution and industry could be beautiful, and that it was because of the railroad cutoff and the oil dredging that he chose this part of the Great Salt Lake for his project, where the lake’s supply of fresh water had been artificially cut, raising the salt content so high that nothing but red algae could grow. I had immediately wanted to see this thing made by a New York artist in leather pants, who described more or less the slag-heap world of the West I knew, as it looked to me, and found it worth his attentions. I went there, crossed the top of Nevada, and came down just over the Utah border. I watched the water, which pushed peculiar drifts, frothy, white, and ragged. The white drifts looked almost like snow but they moved like soap, quivering and weightless. Spiky desert plants along the shore were coated in an icy fur of white salt. The jetty was submerged but I could see it through the surface of the water. It was the same basalt from the lake’s shore, rearranged to another form. The best ideas were often so simple, even obvious, except that no one had thought of them before. I looked at the water and the distant shore of the lake, a vast bowl of emptiness, jagged rocks, high sun, stillness. I would move to New York City.
Which was an irony, because the artist himself had gone from New York to the West to make his specifically western dreams come true. I was from the place, the hard-hat-wearing, dump-truck-driving world the Land Artists romanticized. So why did Helen Hellenberger pretend to confuse Idaho and Nevada? It was an irony but a fact that a person had to move to New York City first, to become an artist of the West. If that’s what I was going to be. Sandro declared it, “she’s influenced by Land Art,” but this also served to explain away the fact that he was with a woman so young, with no detectable pedigree or accomplishments. Just his word.
When I was little, skiing in the Sierras, I felt that I was drawing on the mountain’s face, making big sweeping graceful lines. That was how I had started to draw, I’d told Sandro, as a little girl, five, six years old, on skis. Later, when drawing became a habit, a way of being, of marking time, I always thought of skiing. When I began ski racing, slalom and giant slalom, it was as if I were tracing lines that were already drawn, and the technical challenge that shadowed the primary one, to finish with a competitive time, was to stay perfectly in the lines, to stay early through the gates, to leave no trace, because the harder you set your skis’ metal edges, the bigger wedge of evidence you left, the more you slowed down. You wanted no snow spraying out behind you. You wanted to be traceless. To ride a flat ski as much as possible. The ruts that cut around and under the bamboo gates, deep trenches if the snow was soft, were to be avoided by going high, by picking a high and graceful line, with no sudden swerves or shuddering edges, as I rode the rails to the finish.
Ski racing was drawing in time, I said to Sandro. I finally had someone listening who wanted to understand: the two things I loved were drawing and speed, and in skiing I had combined them. It was drawing in order to win.
The first winter I was dating Sandro we went to the Kastles’ place up in Rhinebeck for Christmas. It snowed heavily one night, and in the morning I borrowed cross-country skis and skied across a frozen pond, made tracks that went across it in an X, and photographed them. “That will be good,” Sandro said, “your X.” But I wasn’t satisfied by those tracks. Too much effort, the plodding blobs of ski poles every ten feet. Cross-country skiing was like running. It was like walking. Contemplative and aerobic. The trace was better if it was clean, if it was made at some unnatural speed. I asked the Kastles if we could borrow their truck. We did doughnuts on the snow-covered meadow beyond the frozen pond, me spinning the steering wheel like Scott and Andy had taught me, Sandro laughing as the truck’s tires slid. I made broad, circular tracks in the meadow and photographed those. But it was only about having a good time upstate. I thought art came from a brooding solitude. I felt it had to involve risk, some genuine risk.
My five minutes at the truck stop were almost up. I rebraided my hair, which was knotted from the wind and crimped in odd places from the padding in my helmet.
Drivers were arguing about truck color. A purple rig shone like a grape Popsicle among the rows of semis. A cup of cola sailed toward its grille, casting a vote with a slam and clatter of cubes. The men laughed and started to disperse. Nevada was a tone, a light, a deadness that was part of me. But it was different to come back here now. I’d left. I was here not because I was stuck here, but to do something. To do it and then return to New York.
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.”
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 the desert haze to the brownish tone of pantyhose. I was going eighty. Won’t look nearly as good. People love a fatality. I redlined it, still in fourth gear, waiting.
Light winked from the back of something silver, up ahead in the right lane. I rolled off the throttle but didn’t downshift. As I got closer, I recognized the familiar rounded rear corners of a Greyhound. Builds character, my mother liked to say. She had ridden buses alone in the early 1950s, an episode just before I was born that was never explained and didn’t seem quite wholesome, a young woman drifting around on buses, patting cold water on her face in gas station bathrooms. The footage ran through my mind in high-contrast black and white, light cut to ribbons, desperate women accidentally strangled by telephone cords, or alone with the money, drinking on an overcast beach in big sunglasses. My mother’s life was not so glamorous. She was a switchboard operator, and if her past included something akin to noir, it was only the gritty part, the part about being female, poor, and alone, which, in a film, was enough of a circumstance to bring in the intrigue, but in her life it attracted only my father. He left when I was three. Everyone in the family said it was good riddance, and that uncle Bobby was a better father to me than my own could have been. As I approached the Greyhound, ready to pass, I saw that the windows were meshed and blacked. Exhaust was blowing out carelessly from its loose, lower panels, nevada corrections on its side. A mobile prison, with passengers who could not see out. But perhaps to see out was worse. Once, as a kid, riding my bicycle around the county jail, I had seen a man staring down at me from his barred window. A fine-grade rain was falling. I stopped pedaling and looked up at his small face, framed by a gravity-flop of greasy blond hair. The rain was almost invisible. He put an arm through the bars. To feel the rain, I assumed. He gave me the middle finger.
“Save your freedom for a rainy day,” someone had written on the bathroom wall at Rudy’s Bar in SoHo, where Sandro and Ronnie liked to drink. It remained there at eye level above the washbasin all summer. No retorts or cross-outs. Just this blank command as you angled and turned your hands under the faucet.
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 fairing. I loved that fairing the moment I saw the bike at the dealership 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.
I’d ridden motorcycles since I was fourteen. I started out riding in the woods behind our house, with Scott and Andy, who had Yamaha DTs, the first real dirt bikes. Before I learned to ride, I’d ridden on the back of my cousins’ scramblers, which were street bikes they customized, no passenger pegs, my legs held out to the sides in hopes of avoiding an exhaust pipe burn. They were not street legal, no headlight or license plate, but Scott and Andy rode with me on the back all over Reno. Except past the front of our house, because my mother had forbidden me to ride on my cousins’ motorcycles. I held on for wheelies and jumps and learned quickly to trust. It wasn’t Scott and Andy I trusted, one of whom angled a wheelie too high and flipped the bike with me on the back (he had not yet learned to tap the foot brake, to tilt the bike forward), and the other took a jump over a pile of dirt at a construction site and told me to hold tight. That was Andy. He landed with the front end too pitched and we went over the handlebars. I didn’t trust their skills. I had no reason to, since they crashed regularly. I trusted the need for risk, the importance of honoring it. In college, I bought a Moto Valera and then sold it to move to New York. With my new life in the big city, I thought I’d lose interest but I didn’t. Maybe I would have, had I not met Sandro Valera.
The year is 1975 and Reno—so-called because of the place of her birth—has come to New York intent on turning her fascination with motorcycles and speed into art. Her arrival coincides with an explosion of activity in the art world—artists have colonized a deserted and industrial SoHo, are staging actions in the East Village, and are blurring the line between life and art. Reno meets a group of dreamers and raconteurs who submit her to a sentimental education of sorts. Ardent, vulnerable, and bold, she begins an affair with an artist named Sandro Valera, the semi-estranged scion of an Italian tire and motorcycle empire. When they visit Sandro’s family home in Italy, Reno falls in with members of the radical movement that overtook Italy in the seventies. Betrayal sends her reeling into a clandestine undertow.
The Flamethrowers is an intensely engaging exploration of the mystique of the feminine, the fake, the terrorist. At its center is Kushner’s brilliantly realized protagonist, a young woman on the verge. Thrilling and fearless, this is a major American novel from a writer of spectacular talent and imagination.
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Reading Group Guide
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 ic see more