A crowd gathers on the vast salt flats of the Utah desert, waiting. The salt flats, mute and endless, are tailor-made for attempts at land-speed records, lone men hurtling themselves against an abstract ideal, seeking glory, and deaf and blind to the risks. But the crowds are too far removed, literally and metaphorically, from the drama, present mostly for a grislier reason: "We weren't there to see. We were waiting on news of some kind of event, one that could pierce this blank and impassive and giant place. What else could do that but a stupendous wipeout? We were waiting on death."
Rachel Kushner's ambitious second novel, The Flamethrowers, lingers in the stillness, awaiting the wipeout that will mark the end of this in-between time, and this in-between place. Reno, a denizen of the Nevada city famous for its casinos and no-hassle divorces, recently, quixotically relocated to New York to remake herself as an artist of the vast empty West, is here to ride the sleek Italian motorcycle built by her boyfriend's family's company, and to photograph the traces of her ride - the slick lines of salt formed by the tracks of her wheels, the faint impression her journey leaves on the unforgiving desert. Instead, she crashes, destroying her brand-new Moto Valera, but the stupendous wipeout is still to come.
Kushner's highly assured first novel, Telex from Cuba, was about Americans in search of redemption in 1950s Cuba, their tropical idyll being nibbled away at the margins by self-doubt and the approaching hoofbeat of capital-H History. Aimless moderation was to be tested by impassioned extremism, and found wanting. At the salt flats, Reno hangs around with the crew of a famous Italian racer whose assault on the world record is delayed by a strike in Milan. History recurs, first as farce, then as tragedy, with the art world's raucous, if vague, interest in revolution ceding pole position to the armed revolutionaries themselves.
The Flamethrowers adheres to a similar template to Telex, smashing together disparate unfamiliar pieces of a vanished world. Reno, lost and adrift in grubby 1970s Manhattan, slowly joins a loose circle of artists that includes her boyfriend Sandro and his best friend Ronnie, with whom she sleeps one night shortly before meeting Sandro. She dreams of speed and freedom, a passion exemplified by her motorcycle, with which she acquires intimate knowledge of the deserted New York streets: "I had to watch out for potholes, and cabs that came to sudden stops, but crossing Broadway, zooming up Spring Street, passing trucks, hanging a left onto the Bowery, the broadness of the street, the tall buildings in the north distance, the sense of being in, but not of, the city, moving through it with real velocity, wind in my face, were magical."
Art is already a kind of violence, whether it is the snapshots of Reno's wrecked bike, or Sandro's photograph of himself sitting next to renowned composer Morton Feldman, shotgun gripped in his fist. Kushner intersperses glimpses of a young man we eventually realise is Sandro's father, an early 20th-century Italian futurist whose love affair with technology begins after being spurned by a girl in favour of a man on a motorcycle: "Don't despair, he told himself. Be patient. And get a cycle with a combustive engine". Valera, like Reno, glides through streets transformed into playgrounds and carnivals, embracing an alluring new world of power and frictionlessness: "He grew bold and began moving forward between riders, under neon signs that looked like bright, hard candy, reflecting from the tram wires and the tracks in smears and gleams." Kushner's playful language translates the world into a work of art, with this de Kooning streetscape joined by a ski chairlift resembling "still lifes on steel cable".