There are no half-measures in Rachel Kushner's incendiary The Flamethrowers. Kushner's 2013 novel is all about speed — it is about a motorcycle-riding badass named Reno, after all — but, oddly enough, it's not the kind of novel that can be rushed through for a quick read. Kushner's unique turns of phrase are twisted, labyrinthine, poetic, and rich. And, quite frankly, sometimes they need a second or third read to convey the full thrust of their meaning.
Kushner didn't skimp on her novel, and not just in terms of her dense writing style, because this thing is packed with vivid characters, settings, and ideas. Although The Flamethrowers is ostensibly centered on Reno (and that's an assumed "Reno," a nickname she picks up for her childhood home — we never learn her real name) as she journeys to New York City to pursue a career in the arts, the book also flashes back in time to portray a series of experiences lived by her eventual boyfriend's father during the early part of the 20th century. The Flamethrowers flits between Reno's life and the life of the various Valeros (they own a tire company in Italy, eventually one that includes a side business making hip motorcycles, because of course), with little regard for linear storytelling or overt clarity. The result is a big, bold novel that never takes its foot off the gas.
If you’ve already read (and loved) The Flamethrowers and are looking for other titles similar to it, there's a lot more to choose from, depending on what exactly about Kushner's bruiser of a story revved your engine.
1. If you want to read another account of life in New York City in the seventies, try Edmund White's City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960s and '70s
When Reno moves to New York City to jumpstart her art career — and, let's be real, to sort of find this dude she had a crush on at school — she soon becomes steeped in a lifestyle and environment that's invigoratingly alive. If you're hungry to read up on life in the big city during the heady '60s and '70s, novelist White's autobiography is packed with juicy tidbits, hilarious gossip, and an authentic sense of what it was like to really live in Gotham during its grittiest years.
2. If you'd like to dive deeper into a childhood tale set in Northern Nevada, pick up Sarah Weeks' So B. It
Reno often reflects back on her life in, uh, Reno, as she works her way through both New York City and Italy. She returns to the sprawling desert state for an all-important ride across the Bonneville Salt Flats (located just across the state line, in Utah), and Nevada remains her spiritual home. Although there's not a tremendous amount of modern literature about the state — what a shame! — Weeks' 2004 YA novel centers on 12-year-old Heidi It, a Reno resident struggling mightily with an unsatisfying home life. In a funny twist, the book also has roots in New York City, with young Heidi eventually striking out on her own adventure there.
3. If you need to read another novel about a girl and her motorcycle, grab Erika Lopez's Flaming Iguanas: An Illustrated All-Girl Road Novel Thing
Big and bold in its own ways, Lopez's book is a dazzlingly fun (and funny!) look at women on the road, packed with weird stories, creative drawings, and enough energy to inspire anyone to hop onto her own hog.
4. If you want to learn more about Italy's "Opposti Estremismi," dive into Robert Gardner's Red Brigades: The Story of Italian Terrorism
Reno eventually finds herself entangled in a period of Italian unrest often referred to as "Opposti Estremismi." Unwittingly involved in political demonstrations (and maybe more), she's hard-pressed to contextualize everything that's swirling around here, but you don't have to be equally confused, as long as you pick up Gardner's heady, fact-based nonfiction tome and read up on your history.
5. If you're searching for another novel that easily switches between time, place, and narrator, pick up Jhmupa Lahiri's The Lowland
The Flamethrowers may be the story of Reno, but it's also the tale of a number of Valeras (especially her one-time boyfriend, Sandro), and Kushner often flips between Reno's narrative and stories about the Valeras, told from their perspective. It's often jarring (and, frankly, Reno's story is far more compelling), but if you're interested in that kind of storytelling, Lahiri's novel delivers in a big way. The Lowland similarly zips between narrators, effectively telling a full and satisfying story in the process.
6. If you're drawn to stories about budding NYC artists, Patti Smith's Just Kids is perfect for you
The rocker's 2010 memoir is a strong parallel to Reno's own (fictional) story, as it focuses on Smith's adult coming-of-age in '60s and '70s New York. Many of the same places and characters that populate Kushner's novel pop up in Smith's lovingly penned story, and both books are dedicated to chronicling what happens when a young talent attempts to build their life around art.
7. If you want to spend time with another lonely girl, you might owe Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar a re-read
Reno may seem bigger than life to Kushner's readers, but a deep loneliness and dissatisfaction permeates her character. Similarly alone (and lonely), Plath's own Esther Greenwood is a lot like Reno: talented, driven, and on the edge. Esther and Reno may end up in different places, but their paths are eerily alike.
8. If you'd like to learn more about land art, snap up Erin Hogan's Spiral Jetty
Reno is compelled towards land art by Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty pieces, a relatable enough compulsion that author Hogan similarly chronicled in her true-life tale. In the 2008 non-fiction book, Hogan documents her visits to a number of key land arts sites — including the very same spirals Reno herself visits in the novel.
9. If you just want to read more from Rachel Kushner, you should start on Telex from Cuba right now
The Flamethrowers is only Kushner's second novel, and although that means that the author doesn't have a deep back catalogue for you to jump into, she's still got a debut novel that you can cozy up with. That novel — Telex from Cuba — hit shelves back in 2008 to its own acclaim. Like The Flamethrowers, Telex from Cuba is a big, bold period story that flips between narrators and perspectives, all swirling around an unstoppable revolution. Kushner certainly has a wheelhouse she likes to work in, but the results speak for themselves.