How To Survive the Red Brigades

Kidnap Victim of Italy’s Red Brigades in the 1970s

I have just finished reading a fascinating novel by Rachel Kushner entitled The Flamethrowers. In it, the author describes a young woman named only Reno who races motorcycles on Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats, gets involved in the New York art scene of the 1970s, and even winds up in the middle of a Red Brigades terrorist cell in Rome. She manages to survive by not letting herself get weighted down.

The following is from my review of the book on Goodreads:

The heroine, referred to only as Reno (from where she was born), is a young woman into motorcycle racing and art circa 1975. She goes to New York, where she gets into the art scene and gets involved with two men, Ronnie Fontaine (briefly) and Sandro Valera, scion of the Italian family that manufactures Moto Valera motorcycles.

Few reviewers, I thought, understood where the book title came from. At one point, Sandro’s father criticizes his son’s admiration of the Italian motorcyclists who went into battle during World War I with flamethrowers on their backs:

Flag of the Red Brigades

But then his father told him the flamethrowers were a hopeless lot. Their tanks were cumbersome and heavy and they were obvious and slow-moving targets and if they were ever caught they were shown no mercy. That’s not a thing you want to be, his father said, after which Sandro continued to love the flamethrowers best, to reserve for them a special fascination, in their eerie, hooded asbestos suit, the long and evil nozzle they aimed at enemy holdouts.

There are two related images to which the author refers. One is to native Brazilians who tapped the Valera-owned rubber trees carrying heavy stones so that their souls wouldn’t drift away. Another is to a would-be suicide Sandro saves from drowning in the East River: He had deliberately weighted himself down with multiple overcoats to facilitate his exit.

Reno carries no such weights. She doesn’t even seem to bear a last name. She goes through life without attaching herself irrevocably to someone who is too weighted down to survive in this world. At one point, she is in Italy among the Red Brigades, who were staging a mass demonstration with kidnappings. She moves through what is a terrorist cell without becoming weighted down with any of the ideology.

An interesting message from an interesting novelist.