This Book Has Heat’

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Ann Summa/The New York Times/Redux
Rachel Kushner at her house in Los Angeles, March 2013

A young woman from Reno, an artist (and motorcyclist), comes to New York and the Seventies downtown art scene, and is promptly dubbed “Reno” by one of the art scene people. That’s the starter motor for Rachel Kushner’s novel. Reno is intelligent. She is shy and bold. She is attractive. She has a winning gap between her front teeth. She wants to do her art. She has brought the American West east. Here she is, alone in New York, a bit at a loss. She is looking for her story. She is the story, or rather hers is the voice that tells about many of the events in the book and inspires much of the dialogue of the other characters. She connects what’s in the novel to connect.

The other principals are Sandro Valera (fleeing his distinguished Milanese family whose factory in Milan makes Moto Valera motorcycles) and his friend Ronnie Fontaine, with each of whom Reno has an affair, and to both of whom, but especially to Valera, Reno joins herself, heart and head. Both fellows work as nighttime security guards at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or did in the recent past, and of course there’s a scene in the empty after-hours museum examining a Greek statue of a slave girl, with meanings attached. Both men are artists. As to whether Reno is an artist. As to whether any of these artists are artists. Ah well. I’m sorry to say that these lively combustible characters, quite fun, talkative, talkative, up to all kinds of stuff, whose names are mixed in with the names of real artists of the period (such as Robert Smithson and, for heaven’s sake, Morton Feldman!), these fictional artists and art world types are not really persuasive, even when they supply pages of pleasure.

The book begins with a flashback to World War I, with an Italian soldier at the front yanking the headlight off the motorcycle of a buddy who a moment before has crashed and died, and using the headlight as a cudgel to knock down a German soldier charging toward him. The Italian soldier is T. P. Valera, Sandro’s father, as a young man. At intervals during the course of the novel, the story of the father is told, how he made his fortune with rubber (and therefore tires) produced by what you could call slave labor in the jungles of the Amazon, leading to a company and a factory in Italy, and prestige and power.

The father as a youth, well before the war, falls in with a spirited gang of kids in Rome who hang out at a particular café and make proclamations about life and art and politics, and blast around town on their primitive early motorcycles, and whose attitudes and activities and aggression are meant to bring to mind the Futurists and forecast the …

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