If Rachel Kushner never wrote again we would still have 2013’s The Flamethrowers, a novel so restless and electric and startlingly true it almost seemed to charge the atoms in the air around it. (Either way she would have written another National Book Award finalist, 2008’s clever, more diffuse Telex From Cuba.)
But now a five-year wait has produced The Mars Room — a novel that may be even better, though its subject matter is infinitely grimmer, miles away from the subversive glamour of the 1970s New York art world or Italy’s youth in revolt. Romy Hall is a native of San Francisco — not the postcard dream of steep hills and cable cars but a scrappier, almost feral nether land of teenage delinquency, seedy flophouses, and $20-a-song strip clubs. She’s a dancer at a club like that, a single mother, and, by 2003, a convicted murderer serving two life sentences.
Like Raymond Carver or Edward Hopper or Nan Goldin (whose photograph “Amanda in the Mirror” graces the cover), Kushner is a sort of genius of loneliness; her stories slink in the margins, but they have the feel of something iconic. Mars brims with characters and digressions — the diaries of Ted Kaczynski, bygone country & western singers, inmates named Conan and Teardrop and the Norse — and returns to favored themes: the tricky wobble of young womanhood, the open-road freedom of motors and speed. Romy might not be going anywhere fast, but she’s alive on every page, raw and beautiful. A-