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The Hard Crowd: Everything is turning to gold

Book review: Enthralling collection of essays from the acclaimed novelist Rachel Kushner

Rachel Kushner: her daring exploits like someone’s cool older sister
The Hard Crowd
The Hard Crowd
Author: Rachel Kushner
ISBN-13: 978-1787332973
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Guideline Price: £18.99

As with so much of her fiction, Rachel Kushner’s new essay collection is concerned with liminal spaces and breakthroughs, outsiders who carve their own paths to embrace worlds that are exciting, sometimes terrifying, but always fascinating to encounter.

Girl on a Motorcycle, the opening story of The Hard Crowd, sets the tone as the author takes the reader on a hair-raising trip down the Baja Peninsula in Mexico where Kushner participates in the notorious Cabo 1000 motorcycle race: “At four thirty a.m. we were lined up in the dark parking lot of the Motel 6, all twenty-nine of us revving our engines like a swarm of angry bees.” It is a thrilling and intimate perspective from the life of a risk taker, akin to eavesdropping on the daring exploits of someone’s cool older sister.

“My first bike was a 500 cc Moto Guzzi,” Kushner writes, before going on to give striking details of the community, from the “duct-taped race leathers and Kevlar gloves” to the ruthless reaction of fellow riders, including her own boyfriend, when she comes off her bike at 130 miles an hour: “And then I’m bounced up again, my body whomped to the ground, hip bone first, and that jutting, vulnerable bone feels like it’s become a bag of dust.”

Kushner’s description of “completing the ride without dying” is an apt metaphor for how she lives her life, if these 19 essays are anything to go by. The American author lives fast and loose from a young age, queuing for a night outside the Oakland Coliseum at age 13 to see The Who and The Clash, a concert she has little memory of because the joint she was smoking turned out to be laced with PCP.


Many of the essays are centred around her experiences working as a bartender in San Francisco in the 1980s and 1990s, in venues such as the Blue Lamp and Warfield on Market Street, which come with the kinds of anecdotes – tending bar with Keith Richards, for one – that would stretch credibility in fiction. Yet a recurring theme across the collection is how her remarkable experiences have informed her novels and stories.

From the intellectuals, such as the poet David Rattray, who her parents befriended when she was a child, to teenage hours spent in the San Francisco gambling parlour Fascination, to seminal relationships with artists and musicians, the reader comes to understand the range of cultural influences that have made it into her writing.

It is clear that Kushner is a sharp cultural commentator, offering original insights on her subjects, often making cross-cultural comparisons that show the breadth of her knowledge

Kushner might have made drinks with a Rolling Stone all night long, but a part of her is also the observer, noting things down for later use: "To become a writer is to have left early no matter what time you got home." In this, and in other sections throughout the book, are echoes of her great predecessor, Joan Didion, in particular the latter's charting of the hedonism of San Francisco in the 1960s and 1970s, including one famous instance where she came across a five-year-old girl on acid. Asked about this once, Didion replied, with her trademark wit and honesty: "Let me tell you, it was gold." That same sentiment of mining life's experiences for precious nuggets is evident throughout The Hard Crowd.

Kushner is the author of The Mars Room, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. Her previous novels, Telex from Cuba and The Flamethrowers, were both New York Times bestsellers and National Book Award finalists. Her fiction has appeared in the New Yorker, Harper's and the Paris Review. She currently lives in Los Angeles. Although the essays in The Hard Crowd were written over the past two decades, many of the personal anecdotes stem from her younger self. We get glimpses of her life now – a mother, a wife married "to the son of a trucker, from an entire family of truckers" – but the majority of the pieces focus instead on the world around her.

Reader engagement with some of the cultural commentary essays, which range from obscure Italian cinema, to the writing and life of Marguerite Duras, to the artwork of Jeff Koons, will depend on the level of interest in these particular topics. It is clear that Kushner is a sharp cultural commentator, offering original insights on her subjects, often making cross-cultural comparisons that show the breadth of her knowledge.

And the prose is always engaging: Denis Johnson’s “passion for wrecked people certainly spawned a kind of cult status”, but his novels are not just “for hipsters and crackheads who read”.

Whether the material is personal, cultural or political – there are essays on Palestinian refugee camps and reform of the US prison system – one thing is clear: for a writer of Rachel Kushner’s ability, everything is gold.

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin

Sarah Gilmartin is a contributor to The Irish Times focusing on books and the wider arts