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The Flamethrowers

A Novel



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About The Book

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST * NAMED ONE OF THE TEN BEST BOOKS BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW * New York magazine’s #1 Book of the Year * Best Book of 2013 by: The Wall Street Journal; Vogue; O, The Oprah Magazine; Los Angeles Times; The San Francisco Chronicle; The New Yorker; Time; Flavorwire; Salon; Slate; The Daily Beast

“Superb…Scintillatingly alive…A pure explosion of now.”—The New Yorker

Reno, so-called because of the place of her birth, comes to New York intent on turning her fascination with motorcycles and speed into art. Her arrival coincides with an explosion of activity—artists colonize a deserted and industrial SoHo, stage actions in the East Village, blur the line between life and art. Reno is submitted to a sentimental education of sorts—by dreamers, poseurs, and raconteurs in New York and by radicals in Italy, where she goes with her lover to meet his estranged and formidable family. Ardent, vulnerable, and bold, Reno is a fiercely memorable observer, superbly realized by Rachel Kushner.

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
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!

About The Author

Photograph © Chloe Aftel

Rachel Kushner is the author of Creation Lake, her latest novel, The Hard Crowd, her acclaimed essay collection, and the internationally bestselling novels The Mars Room, The Flamethrowers, and Telex from Cuba, as well as a book of short stories, The Strange Case of Rachel K. She has won the Prix Médicis and been a finalist for the Booker Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Folio Prize, and was twice a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. She is a Guggenheim Foundation Fellow and the recipient of the Harold D. Vursell Memorial Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Her books are translated into twenty-seven languages.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Scribner (January 14, 2014)
  • Length: 432 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781439142011

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Raves and Reviews

I loved Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers.”

– Jonathan Franzen, The New York Times Book Review

“Rachel Kushner’s fearless, blazing prose ignites the 70s New York art scene and Italian underground of The Flamethrowers.”

– Elissa Schappell, Vanity Fair

“Rachel Kushner’s second novel, The Flamethrowers, is scintillatingly alive, and also alive to artifice. It ripples with stories, anecdotes, set-piece monologues, crafty egotistical tall tales, and hapless adventures: Kushner is never not telling a story… it manifests itself as a pure explosion of now: it catches us in its mobile, flashing present, which is the living reality it conjures on the page at the moment we are reading… Kushner employs a[n]…eerie confidence throughout her novel, which constantly entwines the invented with the real, and she often uses the power of invention to give her fiction the authenticity of the reportorial, the solidity of the historical…Kushner watches the New York art world of the late seventies with sardonic precision and lancing humor, using Reno’s reportorial hospitality to fill her pages with lively portraits and outrageous cameos…[Kushner’s] novel is an achievement precisely because it resists either paranoid connectedness or knowing universalism. On the contrary, it succeeds because it is so full of vibrantly different stories and histories, all of them particular, all of them brilliantly alive.”

– James Wood, The New Yorker

The Flamethrowers unfolds on a bigger, brighter screen than nearly any recent American novel I can remember. It plays out as if on Imax, or simply higher-grade film stock…Ms. Kushner can really write. Her prose has a poise and wariness and moral graininess that puts you in mind of ….Robert Stone and Joan Didion…[Kushner has] a sensibility that’s on constant alert for crazy, sensual, often ravaged beauty…persuasive and moving…provocative.”

– Dwight Garner, The New York Times

“Life, gazed at with exemplary intensity over hundreds of pages and thousands of sentences precision-etched with detail—that’s what The Flamethrowers feels like. That’s what it is. And it could scarcely be better. The Flamethrowers is a political novel, a feminist novel, a sexy novel, and a kind of thriller…Virtually every page contains a paragraph that merits—and rewards—rereading."

– Tom Bissell, Harper’s

“Rachel Kushner’s new novel, The Flamethrowers, is a high-wire performance worthy of Philippe Petit. On lines stretched tight between satire and eulogy, she strolls above the self-absorbed terrain of the New York art scene in the 1970s, providing a vision alternately intimate and elevated…[Kushner is] a superb recent-historical novelist20 brilliant pages [of The Flamethrowers] could make any writer’s career: a set piece of New York night life that’s a daze of comedy, poignancy and violence…What really dazzles…is her ability to steer this zigzag plot so expertly that she can let it spin out of control now and then…The Flamethrowers concludes with two astonishing scenes: one all black, one all white, as striking as any of the desert photographs Reno aspires to shoot, but infinitely richer and more evocative. Hang on: This is a trip you don’t want to miss.”

– Ron Charles, The Washington Post

“[A] big, rich wonder of a novel… [Kushner’s] polychrome sentences…are shot through with all the longing and regret you find in those of Thomas Pynchon, whose influence is all over this novel… a glittering, grave, brutally unsentimental book that’s spectacularly written enough to touch greatness.”

– Craig Seligman, Bloomberg News

“Exhilarating…it’s impossible not to be pulled in by the author’s sense of the period’s vitality…the novel’s brilliance is in its understanding of art’s relationship to risk, and in its portrait of Reno’s—and New York’s—age of innocence.”

– Megan O’Grady, Vogue

[A] brilliant lightning bolt of a novelThe Flamethrowers is an entire world, intimately and convincingly observed, filled with characters whose desires feel true. It is also an uncannily perceptive portrait of our culture—psychologically and philosophically astute, candid about class, art, sex and the position of women—with a deadly accuracy that recalls the young Joan Didion, and that, despite the precisely rendered historical backdrop, gives the story a timeless urgency.”

– Maud Newton, NPR

“A white-hot ember of a book…”

– David Ulin, The Los Angeles Times

Brilliant and exhilarating…Kushner fearlessly tackles art, death, and social unrest. In so doing, she has written the sort of relentless and immersive novel that forces the reader to look up and make sure the room hasn’t disappeared around her.”

– Eugenia Williamson, The Boston Globe

“Vividly drawn…[A] keenly observed story.”

– Melissa Maerz, Entertainment Weekly

Kushner can write like blazes.”

– Karen Long, The Cleveland Plain Dealer

Electric…addictive…smart and satisfying.”

– Kristy Davis, O, the Oprah magazine

Exhilarating, psychologically complex, and perfectly intense, this is a thrilling contemporary novel likely to become a cultural touchstone.”

– Emily Temple, Flavorwire

“Rachel Kushner so deftly interweaves the story of an Italian industrialist with that of a young woman insinuating herself into the 1970s New York art scene that The Flamethrowers slowly and seductively becomes a novel you just can’t quit.”

– Sherryl Connelly, New York Daily News

The Flamethrowers not only harnesses the energies of violent Italian politics; it also converts the intensity of radical New York visual art into shining, whirling prose.”

– Jimmy So, The Daily Beast

“In her smash-hit debut, Telex from Cuba (2008), Kushner took on corporate imperialism and revolution, themes that also stoke this knowing and imaginative saga of a gutsy yet naïve artist from Nevada… Kushner, with searing insights, contrasts the obliteration of the line between life and art in hothouse New York with life-or-death street battles in Rome. Adroitly balancing astringent social critique with deep soundings of the complex psyches of her intriguing characters, Kushner has forged an incandescently detailed, cosmopolitan, and propulsively dramatic tale of creativity and destruction.

– Booklist, STARRED review

“This rich second novel from Kushner takes place in late-‘70s New York City and Italy…Kushner’s psychological explorations of her characters are incisive, the novel is peppered with subtle ‘70s details, and it bursts with you-are-there depictions of its time and places.”

– Publishers Weekly, STARRED review

“A novel of art and politics but also of bikes and speed…exhilarating.”

– Kirkus Reviews, STARRED review

The Flamethrowers is an ambitious and serious American novel. The sentences are sharp and gorgeously made. The scope is wide. The political and the personal are locked in a deep and fascinating embrace. Kushner writes about excitement and tension with gusto and grace; she describes Italy and New York with a dark and savvy irony.”

– Colm Tóibín, author of Brooklyn and The Testament of Mary

“I didn't know what it could possibly look like for something to be a super smart sexy novel; now I know. The Flamethrowers is its own category of Wow, and Kushner is the champion of something strange, wonderful and real.”

– Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances

“Kushner is rapidly emerging as a thrilling and prodigious novelist.”

– Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom

“Oscillating between the hedonistic New York artworld and Italy in the midst of the Years of Lead, The Flamethrowers is that rare thing, a novel that uses recent history not as a picturesque backdrop, but as a way of interrogating the present. Kushner’s urgent prose and psychological acuity make this one of the most compelling and enjoyable novels I’ve read this year.”

– Hari Kunzru, author of Gods Without Men

“The controlled intensity and perception in Rachel Kushner's novels mark her as one of the most brilliant writers of the oncoming century. She's going to be one we turn to for our serious pleasures and for the insight and wisdom we'll be needing in hard times to come. Rachel Kushner is a novelist of the very first order. The Flamethrowers follows Telex from Cuba as a masterful work.”

– Robert Stone

The Flamethrowers lives up to its incendiary title—it is a brilliant, startling truly revolutionary book about the New York art world of the seventies, Italian class warfare, and youth's blind acceleration into the unknown. Kushner is a genius prose stylist, and her Reno is one of the most fully realized protagonists I've ever encountered, moving fluidly from the fringe of the fringe movement to the center of the action. I want to recommend this stunning book to everyone I know.”

– Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia!

"Rachel Kushner writes dazzling, sexy, glorious prose. She is as brilliant on men and motorcycles as she is on art and film. The Flamethrowers is an ambitious and powerful novel."

– Dana Spiotta, author of Eat the Document and Stone Arabia

“In this extremely bold, swashbuckling novel, romantic and disillusioned at once, intellectually daring and even subversive, Rachel Kushner has created the most beguiling American ingénue abroad, well, maybe ever: Daisy Miller as a sharply observant yet vulnerable Reno-raised motorcycle racer and aspiring artist, set loose in gritty 70s New York and the Italy of the Red Brigades.”

– Francisco Goldman, author of Say Her Name

The Flamethrowers is about machines (motorcycles and guns, but also cameras) and the way they revolutionized the last century (its politics and violence, but also its art)…[Kushner’s] style is a rare blend of romanticism and historicism—with a sense of precision.”

– Christian Lorentzen, Bookforum

"Kushner is a young master. I honestly don’t know how she is able to know so much (about motorcycle racing, Italian radical politics) and convey all of this in such a completely entertaining and mesmerizing way."

– George Saunders, author of Tenth of December

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