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Turkey Tracks and Books, Documentaries, Reviews

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Turkey Tracks and Books, Documentaries, Reviews:  June 23, 2014

Maine Summer Sky and Reading on the Back Deck

The Flame Throwers:  Rachel Kushner


For the past three mornings, I’ve spent a few hours reading on the back deck–drinking my early morning tea and moving from sun to shade and back as the heat dictates.

The morning sky has been that incomparable shade of blue that we get here in the summer:


Around noon, the wind comes up and, sometimes, clouds blow in.  But the mornings…  Well, they are a delight.

In the late afternoon the temps start to drop–all the way to high 40s last night–which means glorious sleeping.

What have I been reading?

Our book club selection for July.



I finished it today and will move on to something else.  For some reason, I seem to read more fiction during the summer.  Maybe that’s about slowing down and relaxing a bit.

This book is a New York Times bestseller–and for good reason.  It’s a dense, complicated, terrific read.

It was also one of the 10 best books of 2013, as picked by The New York Times.

And a National Book Award finalist.

The story takes place mostly in 1975-1977–in New York City and Italy.  Both were experiencing turbulent times, with a lot of labor unrest, anarchy, and pervasive challenges to “law and order” and the status quo.  Remember that 1968 was a year in which students all over the world (remember France?) famously protested  class inequities, the Vietnam war, loss of wages among the poor, and so on.  But that unrest continued for, obviously, a decade.

Reno thinks she is a “land artist”–which means she likes to create marks on the earth and photograph them.   What especially draws her are marks that chart speed/time and line–which involves motorcycles.   She falls into a company of very successful avant garde artists in New York City, but only in a “hanger on” sort of way.  Underneath is always already, the silencing of women and their reduction to sexual relationships.  The novel is much, much more complicated than these easy simplicities I am voicing here.

There are, in this novel, many riffs on language and the double meanings of words–or the loaded cultural baggage in words.  Here’s an example of one such riff–made and taped by one of the artists:

Home.  We say ‘home,’ not ‘house.’  You never hear a good agent say ‘house.’  A house is where people have died on the mattresses.  Where pipes freeze and burst.  Where termites fall from the sink spigot.  Where somebody starts a flu fire by burning a telephone book in the furnace.  Where banks repossess.  Where mental illness takes hold.  A home is something else.  Do not underestimate the power in the word home.  Say it. “home.”  It’s like the difference between ‘rebel’ and ‘thug.’  A rebel is a gleaming individual in tight Levi’s, a sneering and pretty face.  The kind Sal Mineo wet-dreams.  A thug is hairy and dark, an object that would sink to the bottom when dropped in a lake.  A home is maintained.  Cared for.  Loved.  The word home is savory like gravy, and like gravy, kept warm.  A good realtor says ‘home.”  Never ‘house.’  Always ‘cellar’ and never ‘basement.’  Basements are where cats crap on old Santa costumes.  Where men drink themselves to death.  Where children learn firsthand about sexual molestation.  But cellar.  A cellar is where you keep root vegetables and wine.  Cellar means a proximity to the earth that’s not about blackness and rot but the four ritual seasons.  We say ‘autumn,’ not ‘fall.’  We say ‘The leaves in this area are simply magnificent in autumn.’  We say ‘simply magnificent,’ and by the way, ‘lawn,’ not ‘yard.’  It’s ‘underarm’ to ‘armpit.’  Would you say ‘armpit’ to a potential buyer?  Say ‘yard’ and your buyer pictures rusted push mowers, plantar warts.  Someone shearing off his thumb and a couple of fingers with a table saw.  A tool shed where water-damaged pornography and used motor oil funneled into fabric softener bottles cohabitate with hints of trauma that are a thick and dark as the oil.

And on and on it goes.

Here’s the opening paragraph of The New York Times book review by Christina Garcia–followed by the url to the review:

In “The Flamethrowers,” her frequently dazzling second novel, Rachel Kushner thrusts us into the white-hot center of the 1970s conceptual art world, motorcycle racing, upper-class Italy and the rampant kidnappings and terrorism that plagued it. It’s an irresistible, high-octane mix — and a departure from the steamier pleasures of her critically acclaimed first novel, “Telex From Cuba.” The language is equally gorgeous, however, and Kushner’s insights into place, society and the complicated rules of belonging, and unbelonging, can be mordantly brilliant. None of the characters in “The Flamethrowers” are quite what they seem, fabricating pasts as nonchalantly as they throw together their art. Above all, they hunger to be seen, to distinguish themselves from the ordinary. One artist, responding to the question of why he invents, defends his florid lies as “a form of discretion.”


Garcia finds the novel’s ending chapters…disjointed.  I did not, though I see what she means.  I think when Kushner’s characters move aside their imaginative lives and touch down to earth, something is lost–for them.  That truth (what else is there?  is this all there is?) is the hard truth we all must face as we face our own mortality.  The two main characters have to…grow up…amidst the disjointed facets of their lives which are made more disjointed by chaos and violence.

Written by louisaenright

June 23, 2014 at 2:58 pm

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