Riding with the Hard Crowd

On writing the dead back to life with Rachel Kushner

Reading The Hard Crowd, we’re stalked by the dead. There’s Randy Bradescu, who wins a perilous and illegal 1000-mile motorcycle race through the Baja California desert, only to be left dead at the side of the road. Alden Van Buskirk, a gorgeous young Beat poet with a fatal blood condition, who dies before he’s published. Baha Nababta, a Palestinian community organiser, shot seven times as he paves a road in Shuafat Refugee Camp. A young hustler in tight jeans called Tommy, who wiles away his afternoons at The Blue Lamp, a San Francisco dive bar. His severed head is found in a dumpster three blocks away.

If some of these stories sound far-fetched, that’s because the truth – or at least Rachel Kushner’s truth – is stranger than fiction. Kushner is perhaps best-known as a novelist: 2013’s The Flamethrowers zoned in on 1970s counterculture, split between the New York art crowd, Nevada gearheads and Italian leftwing radicals, while 2018’s Man Booker-nominated The Mars Room is about a stripper serving a double life-sentence in a California correctional facility. Kushner’s core characters – girl bikers, underground artists, revolutionaries, strippers, criminals – might sound a little on-the-nose, a little sensational, but what we learn in The Hard Crowd, Kushner’s new collection of essays, is that her fiction tells us only half of the mad shit she’s experienced. That story about the head in the dumpster? Horrifyingly true – Kushner was a bartender in The Blue Lamp in the 90s, and used to pass the tedium of a quiet afternoon in Tommy’s company; she learnt his grisly fate upon seeing his face on the front of a newspaper. She has never been tempted to fictionalise his brutal death in her novels, partly because it’s too unbelievable. 

Like its doomed clientele, The Blue Lamp is long gone. Another former workplace, a vintage store, burned down “suspiciously”. A department store teenage Kushner was arrested for shoplifting in (and banned “for life” from) has disappeared – “I outlived it!”. Cities redevelop and scrub themselves clean of their histories; local haunts and storied hangout spots are expunged. Scenes fizzle out, bands break up, the urgent political ideals of the 1970s, which permeate Kushner’s fiction as well as this selection of essays, seem remote, distant. It’s in grappling with this hauntology that Kushner’s collection reaches its zenith, in its titular essay ‘The Hard Crowd’. Faced with a chorus of characters whose fascinating lives have been stubbed out early, Kushner is haunted not only by people, but places, feelings, ideas. Stories linger only in memory now that the physical traces of her past have been erased. She watches an archival video on YouTube, filmed from the window of a car driving through downtown San Francisco, trying to reconnect the dots of her dissipated youth.

Kushner is attracted to this kind of ephemerality – she never got a tattoo because she prefers “memories that stay fragile, vulnerable to erasure, like the soft feel of velvet couches”. At times, she feels compelled to bear witness, deciding to write The Mars Room after realising that “the real-world places and the people I knew would never be in books unless I wrote the books”. And so a youth misspent watching gambling addicts throw rubber balls in Fascination on Market Street is not misspent after all, but becomes the texture of a novel. Other memories remain off-limits. She has never fictionalised the people of The Blue Lamp, because “if I transformed them into fiction I might lose my grasp on the real place, the evidence of which has otherwise evaporated.” Perhaps she hasn’t sufficiently moved on from that era, she reflects, or perhaps by immortalising our memories in writing we somehow kill them, fixing them in language, and she isn’t quite ready to let this one die. 

Fans of Kushner’s fiction will find much to pour over here. The heroine of The Flamethrowers, dubbed Reno after her city of birth, is a wiley young whippersnapper who arrives in New York with artistic ambitions and the name of a friend in her pocket. She never locates her friend, but her youthful zeal, biker girl kudos and wild western origin story are all fetishised by older male conceptual artists, who take her on as a sort of girlfriend-cum-student. Reno’s land art project is to race along the Bonneville Salt Flats, breaking the women’s land speed record at 308.506 mph, and photographing her tracks (I’d take this over Spiral Jetty any day). It’s thrilling, then, to read about Kushner’s own time motorcycle racing on the Baja 1000 in the opening text ‘Girl on a Motorcycle’ (the title a reference to a cult classic 1968 Marianne Faithfull flick), which is just as riveting as her fictional accounts.

Kushner is an immensely visual writer and The Flamethrowers shows a deeper understanding of 70s art movements than most novelists who attempt to foray into this arena, so it’s also no surprise that she also spends her time thinking and writing about art. Her texts on Jeff Koons, Thomas Demand and Matthew Porter don’t show the same depth of understanding as her essays on the writers who have influenced her (Marguerite Duras, Clarice Lispector) but they do help unpack her visual universe, the cultural DNA of her novels. In ‘Made to Burn’, she talks through some of the visual references for The Flamethrowers, which are diverse and fascinating, taking in experimental Italian cinema (1975’s Anna, which is masterfully expanded upon in a later essay), a 1977 montage of sound effects called The Murder (by Jack Goldstein), Gabriele Basilico’s photographs of bare arses ‘relief tattooed’ with the imprints left by modernist chairs (below). They offer a rich seam of visual information in and of themselves, but also shed light on Kushner’s approach as a writer, in part explaining her power to paint such striking images through words.

The Hard Crowd shares as much, then, about Kushner’s methodology as a writer as it does her unconventional life story. It also meditates on the uncomfortable ethics of writing about your life experiences (more pointedly, the life experiences of others), the tension between participating and observing. Kushner grew up with the “bohemian idea that real meaning lay with the most brightly alive people, those who were free to wreck themselves”. From her wild posse of renegade friends, Kushner has the dubious honour of being the one who lived to tell the tale – an accomplishment she credits to her broke but educated parents, who made her understand that there was a world beyond this recklessness, that these experiences and impulses can be channelled into art. To do this, though, you have to be at a remove – you have to walk away and choose the “banality of survival” over “the glamour of death”. “To be hard is to let things roll off you, to live in the present, to not dwell or worry,” she writes. “And even though I stayed out late, was committed to the end, some part of me had left early. To become a writer is to have left early no matter what time you got home.”

~ Rosa xo

Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd was published on 8 April. Support Bad Taste and your independent bookshop by ordering it here.

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TIME FOR AN AMARO?

A series of quick-fire recommendations to help you digest

🎶 John Waters has celebrated his 75th birthday by releasing a rapturous 17-minute audiobook, Prayer to Pasolini. Waters visits the monument in Ostia marking the spot Pasolini was murdered while cruising in a park, delivering a love letter and prayer from one master of queer transgressive cinema to another. Stream it on Spotify. Waters is also on Marc Maron this week, a podcast I usually can’t bear but will suffer only for JW

📚 Alim Kheraj’s Queer London catalogues the city’s LGBTQ+ culture, from clubnights to saunas, cruising grounds to community resources. I plan to honour it by visiting some of the historied Soho gay bars it documents this evening

👁 Leidy Churchman’s The Between is Ringing at Rodeo Gallery is cosmic, uplifting and, like most good painting shows, has to be seen in situ. Get thee to a gallery! More great paint: Matt Bollinger at Mother’s Tankstation London (unsettling and deeply moving), Frank Walter at David Zwirner.

As always, leave your own culture recs in the comments. Ciao! xo

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