BY Travis Diehl in Books , Opinion | 14 MAY 21

‘The Hard Crowd’ Reveals Rachel Kushner's Literary Life Through Death

Her latest book, a collection of 19 essays that spans art criticism, journalism and memoir, is an exhaustive examination of what it means to write

BY Travis Diehl in Books , Opinion | 14 MAY 21

‘Neither tragic nor legendary, I myself will never die,’ writes Rachel Kushner in ‘Made to Burn’. She means that no one will write about her death. Her subjects, though – the rough-housers, activists, nihilists and stoics that people her first nonfiction collection, The Hard Crowd: Essays 20002020 (Simon & Schuster, 2021) – are another story. Her dope-using neighbours from the Tenderloin in San Francisco are dead. So are the bartenders and regulars at the Blue Lamp, a dive where she poured drinks before she moved to New York to be a real writer. Her father-in-law, a lifelong trucker, died at 48, and his trucker brother died, too, still trying to shift gears on his gurney: their deaths haunt the kindness of strangers she encounters when her 1963 Impala dies at a truck stop. A lucid obituary for the painter Alex Brown (‘Bunny’, Artforum, 2019) offsets the beauty of their friendship, just as the quaalude-distended discourse of a William Eggleston video she describes in ‘Made to Burn’ – a survey of the research for her 2013 novel The Flamethrowers – can only be seen in light of the violent deaths of ‘many, if not most’ of its cast. Of the Italian documentary Anna (1975), a film that follows a pregnant teenager on the streets of Rome, she writes in ‘Woman in Revolt’ (Artforum, 2012): ‘One can assume that, by the end of the ’70s, most of the characters who ramble on camera wound up either fugitives, imprisoned or dead.’ Baha Nabata, the resourceful community organizer she tails through an open-air Palestinian prison in Jerusalem, is riddled with bullets in broad daylight by a gunman on a motorcycle 15 days after they last speak (‘We Are Orphans Here’, The New York Times Magazine, 2016). And the collection’s pièce de résistance, an account of her days as a San Francisco gearhead and one daredevil trans-Baja sprint in particular, finishes with a litany of fatal accidents (‘Girl on a Motorcycle’, She’s a Bad Motorcycle: Writers on Riding, 2001). The annual race itself ended when a friend crashed and two others, realizing he couldn’t be saved, kept going to Cabo. ‘I always loved the Jim Carroll song “People Who Died”,’ she writes in the titular essay, ‘The Hard Crowd’ (The New Yorker, 2021). ‘I get it.’

Yet, through all the death – and because of it – Kushner’s collection is about the literary life. Nearly every essay here ponders what it takes to be a writer, and who it’s taken from. ‘The Hard Crowd’ puts it directly: that surviving while those around you incandesce into ash is a kind of weakness. ‘Was I hard? Not compared to the world around me,’ Kushner writes. ‘I tell myself it isn’t a moral failing to be the soft one, but I’m actually not sure.’ The writer – pliable and porous – keeps going: a self-interested creature with too much to lose, reckless enough but vain in her ‘perception of grace’ (as unevenly distributed as the grace itself), held back from the edge by the sense that, even facing death, she knows she’ll write about it later. The guilty version is that writers nurture a preciousness towards life and the memories that trail away like exhaust. Kushner wipes out in Baja after taking a curve at 130 miles per hour, her bike mangled, her body rubbed bloody through her leathers. But she survives. She lives, literally, obliged to tell the tale. To do so, she must trade the raw ergonomics of race bikes for the relatively safe sex of classic cars, such as the 1965 Ford Galaxie she poses with – a Gen-X Joan Didion – on the collection’s cover.

Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd, book cover
Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020, 2021, book cover. Courtesy: Simon & Schuster ​​​​

Kushner was born to nobly poor beatnik parents and it’s clear from ‘Tramping in the Byways’  (the afterword for the new edition of David Rattray’s How I Became One of the Invisible, 1992/2019), her elegy for writer David Rattray, who knew her family, that vanity and obsession are part of braiding yourself into more interesting lives. Time and again, Kushner sees a world flush with literary imperatives. In the wine-dark humour of ‘Bad Captains’ (London Review of Books, 2015), the panicked eyes of her companions on a treacherous ferry crossing tell her the law of the sea mostly applies in books. She writes: ‘I had decided that it is the fate of my generation never to have known the noble law of the sea, and to live, instead, in an era when the captain leaves his ship not last but first.’ The piece centres on the Costa Concordia cruise ship, which sank off the coast of Italy in 2012, and its captain, Francesco Schettino, ‘tanned, with glittering ice-blue eyes and black lustrous hair, hair in which, apparently, traces of cocaine were found’. Schettino chose life as a pariah rather than share a watery grave with 32 of his passengers. He was too vain to die – like a writer, maybe, although Kushner is the rare example from her generation to express genuine ambivalence about the literary value of her every self-deprecating thought.

Do we tell ourselves stories in order to live? Survive, maybe. We survive in order to tell stories. Towards the end of ‘The Hard Crowd’, the final essay, Kushner aims a virtuosic jab at Didion in the form of an open letter, ribbing her for how she refers to Jim Morrison’s black leather pants as ‘black vinyl’ in the essay ‘The White Album’ (1979). Didion suffered, but she hasn’t died yet. And maybe even she feels the writer’s special insecurity: that her own story isn’t good enough. Kushner ends ‘The Hard Crowd’ on a self-help triad: ‘Get your own gig. Make your litany,’ she writes. ‘Mind your dead, and your living, and you can bore me.’ The ambivalence of it all: to close this collection’s ungodly rush with a shrug, and so it goes – until the writer turns their guns around. Writers on writers on writers, amen.

Main image: Portrait of Rachel Kushner. Courtesy: Simon & Schuster; photography: Chloe Aftel

Travis Diehl is online editor at X-TRA. He is a recipient of the Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant and the Rabkin Prize in Visual Arts Journalism.