The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner
This novel is about a young artist in 1975 New York. She’s called Reno because that’s where she’s from, and she’s interested in filmmaking and motorcycles. Much of the plot is driven by her relationship with Sandro Valera, an artist whose family owns a motorcycle and tire company in Italy. The climax comes when she is visiting his family in Italy and witnesses a riot protesting the Valera company’s labor practices. The setting was probably the most interesting part of the book to me. The art scene when Manhattan was cheap, the urban unrest in both New York and Milan, the underground resistance movements that Reno got involved in were fascinating. The novel definitely has concerns larger than the protagonist’s love life, and its politics were definitely in sympathy with these workers’ movements. There was even a passage describing the Valero company’s expansion of its rubber harvesting operations into Brazil, including the perspective of a worker in the second person. Two characters, Ronnie and Giddle, were total enigmas to me: they seem to come from nowhere and have no past, so they constantly reinvent themselves, and this involves lots of lies. By the end Reno has been used and betrayed, but she seemed to be picking herself up from it all in a way that I admired. It’s a gritty book, and one that immerses you in its grittiness.