I think Rachel Kushner is a pretty writer, but so was John Updike. One pretty sentence after the other, but she is also, especially from a writerly point of view, a “dumb” writer - just the way the motel owner makes a pass at the Gucci-driving protagonist on the road to Winnemucca and the way the handyman then proves to be a nice guy. Or the way the author imagines the dawning awareness for revolutionary potential in her Telex from Cuba. Ms. Kushner has clichés inculcated in her about certain recent pasts, of which she has heard rumors, inculcated in her and prettily seeks to realize them in prose. As an editor I would pass on the manuscript, but have no objections to a colleague wanting to publish it. Her work contains nothing hateful, but also lacks the imprint, the breath, the real stink of individuality. Mr. James Woods rave, one of my favorites, for once disappoints. Not of interest to any Harley Mamas I don’t think.
Fred Seidel and Robert Silvers have known each other since their Harvard days in the 1950s. It is most unlikely that the esteemed NYRB editor did more than glance at Kushner's novel prior to publishing Fred's take - he might of course read it if the review leads to a major controversy! Nothing makes an editor happier! Nothing like a meretricious controversy to get readers interested in the more interesting parts of the rag.
Neither as reader nor novelist would you consult the NYRB for astute coverage of fiction, although - as an in some respects private shop - the NYRB will run positive reviews of one of its own, such as Susan Sontag's novels, that find less kind receptions elsewhere. The NYRB runs many many marvelous things under the aegis of its patron saint Isaiah Berlin. However, the NYRB is scarcely immune to letting the human right carnivore and democracy drum majorette out of their cage when it so suits, i.e.
and then commits lasting damage among the pret a porter intellectuals who regard it as bible.
Fred Seidel's interest in FLAME THROWER was, I suspect, elicited for being a unique opportunity for one Gucci Motorcycle to review another. I myself have known Fred since the late 50s and published a hunk of poems from his first book, FINAL SOLUTIONS in Metamorphosis, about 1964. Once I lived in Tribeca, as of the early 70s, as one of the publishers of Urizen Books, I could never get Fred to come down from his upper East Side aerie. If I had advertised how easy and forward the distaff side was in this then thoroughgoing heterosexual enclave he might not have kept changing his mind at the last moment. Yet, it was not difficult to find Fred, at Elaine's, where I also maintained one of my several happy hats on a rack.
FLAME THROWERS is set, in part, in the highly transitional venue of downtown NY of the 70s. This world is for Kushner, born in 1968, a myth, a rumor of times recently past, and she even lacked access to rumor until she lived there in the 80s, working for BOMB, one of the major entries to “downtown sewer time.”
Downtown Manhattan was in the 70s a transitional area in the sense that subsequent to "the destruction of Lower Manhattan" and the construction of the WTC, there still were a few greengrocers and cheese and shrimp mongers left, the others having moved to the Bronx. The Fulton Fish Market still existed along the East River, the Landfill for future Battery Park City and the World Financial Center created a beach with anthracite fished out of the Narrows. It was interim time while the tectonic plates shifted according to the wishes of what has moved Manhattan since its beginning, the NY real estate industry, and republican mayors and prosecutors like Guiliani and Bloomberg completed the necessary cleaning of the cesspools in the East Village and its spillover. Initially, during the interim, the vacated venues were occupied, reclaimed by artists and certain other odd folk.
Let me give a hint of the kinds of women you might find in that variegated bohemian quarter – by way of addressing the matter of repressive male chauvinism in downtown Manhattan in, say, 1975. There were the remnants of the 60s communes and movement women, pretty independent and salt of the earth types by then, wised up. There was a good percentage of stubborn successful women artists of all kinds, older. There came a heavy influx of younger artists from the art schools all over the country, contiguous to the East Village, hungry beasties, promiscuous as hell, entirely different ethos from their Vietnam War predecessor. By 1980 you started to find women who had gone to Ivy League type colleges, potential trophy wives, the nefarious of whom had taken Entrapment 101. As to the meat rack side of an area that is just south of the Gansevoort Meat Market, the young women I recall knew which rack of lamb they preferred and tossed it aside just the way men of course still did unless they wanted more. Putting the matter less unkindly and crudely, you could say that the area was one huge Orgon Box and the majority came out happier for the experience. It was a friendly area, I recall only one truly chauvinistic male, a fantastically good looking Columbiam-Irish American stud, the heartbreaker par excellence, and cruel. No end of turtle-doving couples who you thought would never split up, however, then did, with the customary all around heartache and drama. Thus as to women being run over or not being listened to, which Nicholas Miriello feels is the major theme of FLAME THROWERS: not in downtown Manhattan of that period anyway. I recall Kathryn Bigelow coming to see me the first U.S. publisher of George Bataille, because she wanted an option to make a film based on his Ma Mere. We know what kinds of films she ended up making. Perhaps it took hooking up with a powerful male director first, although I suspect it only helped. Others start out as “Mother Courage” at the Yale Drama School and in no time direct Miami Vice type T.V. and then buy their daughters red lacquered cowboy boots. Some it appears can eat style and some are left hungry.
A woman I lived with and I bought an 4,000 loft on Duane Str. for 10 k in 1975, it is now worth 4 million, to give an idea of the interest there was in appreciation of value. That is the only American value that matters. By 1980 the part of Wall Street that likes to walk to work and live bohemian style began to make its presence felt. SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER and discos brought an entirely different crowd from Long Island and New Jersey. Uptown restaurateurs started opening up their places. And I will never forget a blonde bunny, in the early 80s, in one of the classy restaurants as they were finding great spaces downtown, the Brass Moon, shouting at the top of her voice“ all these asshole dogoodders.”