Yet it’s the coolly observant narrator, whom Kushner’s friend Wayne Koestenbaum called “an existential ingenue”—a meandering, wallflower witness to flamboyant anti-bourgeois attacks both artistic and political—that made The Flamethrowers so compelling and, occasionally, polarizing. In the opening pages, Reno races a motorcycle over salt flats with the aim of photographing the etched lines; she winds up both crashing horrifically and breaking a land-speed record. She muses over arty films like Wanda and Model Shop. Occasionally, she cedes the narrative to a World War I motorcycle warrior turned industrialist, a group of New York anarchists called the Motherfuckers, and a gone-to-seed artist discoursing for pages on euphemisms. The result is such a palimpsest of ready-made cultural signifiers that critics who didn’t fall instantly in love (as most did, including James Wood and Dwight Garner) tweaked Kushner for trying too hard, for writing about industrialization and sculpture and working-class mores and the art of motorcycle maintenance as though building a social novel were simply a matter of picking through a gallery of fashionable objets.
Critics of the critics cried gender foul. Salon’s Laura Miller accused skeptics of being intimidated by a woman who dared to write with power and ambition, and it’s undeniably true that those critics were condescending. But questions of authenticity do course through The Flamethrowers: Artists lie, bloviate, and shirk accountability in the name of self-expression, while activists cheat, steal, and kill in the name of the proletariat. No one is quite who he seems to be. It’s another reason the novel feels so delectably au courant today, with Jay Z printing Occupy T-shirts and Kickstarter embracing revolutionary rhetoric. But given that landscape, the same landscape in which The Flamethrowers became an Oprah favorite, it’s tempting to ask just how transgressive a novel, especially a best-selling novel, can be—and whether taking a stand against mainstream values makes you subversive or just modern. In other words: Is Kushner the flamethrower for real?
The answer is, basically, yes, in both senses of the phrase: She knows what she writes about, and she’s dead serious about her ideals. There’s plenty of room in The Flamethrowers for the dark side of that idealism—murdered businessmen, casually discarded girlfriends, movements warped by violence. In many ways it’s the subject of the book. But if something ardent and glamorizing blazes through, like the flashy World War I brigade of the title, that’s because Kushner herself is a believer, a genuine and unself-conscious exponent of what she might call the radical gesture—even if those gestures are more common now among academics and art stars than any genuine underclass. In a forthcoming interview with Tin House, she calls her shimmering mosaic of a second novel a “paean, maybe, to things that have long interested me. Nothing is in the book that I had to learn about. Instead, it is filled with things I already knew … drawn from my taste, my life, my sensibility.”
The day before the Guggenheim visit and the National Book Awards, Kushner and her husband, a philosophy professor named Jason Smith, came down for a tour of the recently restored Spring Street building once occupied by Judd, the Minimalist giant. Kushner, who’s spending the year in Ithaca, where Smith has a fellowship, had asked me to help arrange it. But from the minute we met our guide, Madeleine Hoffmann, it was clear that the author was the one with the in. Immediately, she and Hoffmann were sorting out art-world connections—like Judd’s longtime assistant, Ellie Meyer, whose daughter had been Kushner’s best friend, and Kushner’s aunt, DeeDee Halleck, a filmmaker who had worked for Richard Serra. Kushner had even visited the loft in the early eighties, as a young teen.
A more casual visitor might have simply marveled at the five-story universe. But Kushner played compare and contrast, sketching her own upbringing as a West Coast doppelgänger to what went on here in this fussily curated home. Judd designed and sold tables and chairs; Kushner’s mother built “less aestheticized” benches, because they couldn’t afford anything else. Judd had a massive Sony TV; the Kushners only briefly had one: It “never seems to bring in the grit of real existence,” she told me, trying to explain why she’d only watched a single episode of Portlandia. Peeking into the former bedroom of Judd’s daughter, Kushner spotted a small painting, all jazzy angles, by Stuart Davis. “I had a Stuart Davis poster growing up,” she said with a sideways smile, half-envious and half-proud. “She had a real Stuart Davis.” Smith, the only Ph.D. in the room, chimed in: “I didn’t know who Stuart Davis was.”
All childhoods are formative, but Kushner considers hers essential to the writer she became. When she was 3, her mother, an expert skier, showed her how to use the rope tow on a bunny slope. “She did it once with me, and then they left me there.” Kushner figured it out, but as she moved up to slopes with lifts—skiing alone until age 7—things got complicated. “You’d yell ‘Single!’ ” she remembers, “and then someone else would yell ‘Single!’ I was so shy that it was painful for me to say the word. I would stand at the bottom of the run trying to gear up the courage to yell ‘Single!’ I would just stand there for hours.” (In a beautifully rendered scene in The Flamethrowers, solitary Reno waits for hours at the foot of Mont Blanc.)
In Eugene, Oregon, where the Kushners lived in a painted school bus like Ken Kesey’s, Rachel walked to her “totally hippie preschool” unaccompanied. Hard at work on their Ph.D.’s, the Kushners often left her and her brother at home alone, once for days with no sitter. “They left money in a jar,” Kushner says. “We spent it all on kites, and then we didn’t have any money to buy food.”