Rachel Kushner’s Essays Cover a Lot of Ground, Driven by Powerful Engines

“America was a V-8 country, gas-driven and water-cooled,” Harry Crews wrote in “Car,” his 1972 novel. In her first book of essays, “The Hard Crowd,” the novelist Rachel Kushner reminds us that she writes as well as any writer alive about the pleasure of a good motor doing what it was designed to do.

Desire, drama, exhilaration, peeled nerves: Kushner packed these things into the motorcycle racing scenes, out on the salt flats, in “The Flamethrowers” (2013), her breakout novel.

That novel’s force, as the critic Vivian Gornick pointed out in a Paris Review interview, derived in part from witnessing Kushner “doing big, long riffs on these subjects — she’s doing motorcycles, she’s doing Las Vegas, she’s doing the international art world — that men have always taken for themselves.”

The essays in “The Hard Crowd” aren’t all about motorcycles and antique muscle cars, another of Kushner’s pet topics. There are pieces about Italian film and that country’s radical politics; about American prison reform efforts; about a refugee camp for Palestinians inside Jerusalem.

There are intuitive appraisals of writers such as Denis Johnson, Clarice Lispector, Marguerite Duras and Cormac McCarthy. She writes about artists including Alex Brown and Jeff Koons. She roughs up Koons’s image, and complicates him.

There are a pair of long, moving essays about growing up semi-feral in San Francisco in the late 1970s and early ’80s: fake IDs and head shops and Black Sabbath concerts; a shoplifting arrest; bartending and waitressing jobs in the Tenderloin; working in one of the promoter Bill Graham’s concert venues; an all-night PJ Harvey club show that sent Kushner out determined to change her life.

But “The Hard Crowd” swings back around to engines and to motion. The author had found wings; she meant to use them. We watch her move her soul around.

Kushner was born in Oregon, and moved to San Francisco with her family in 1979, when she was 10. Her parents were scientists and integration activists, and she describes them as deeply anti-establishment: “We had no religion or traditions in our house. We had an assortment of characters who took up residence in our lives, and we had books.”

Her father owned, and often worked on, a beautiful motorcycle: a 1955 Vincent Black Shadow. Kushner describes, at age 7, “computing that engine oil under the nails, the ability to kick-start a four-stroke or handle a suicide clutch — these were not just skills but character.”

Her own motorcycles come to include an orange 500 cc Moto Guzzi, a Kawasaki Ninja and a Cagiva Elefant 650. Her boyfriends tended to be mechanics.

In what might be this book’s best essay, “Girl on a Motorcycle,” she describes riding the Kawasaki, when she was 24, in the Cabo 1000, a dangerous and illegal 1,000-mile race down the Baja Peninsula, often on unpaved roads.

She describes herself as “kinetic and unfettered and alone.” At one point she hits 142 miles per hour. She is going nearly as fast when another biker pulls out in front of her and she is forced off the road and wipes out. There are predatory ambulances; there are bad Samaritans.

“Girl on a Motorcycle” was first published in an anthology titled “She’s a Bad Motorcycle: Writers on Riding,” which appeared in 2002. All the other essays here were written a decade or more after that one.

What’s interesting about “Girl on a Motorcycle” is how fully developed Kushner’s voice already was. It’s a wary voice, cool and wise, with real power and control. There’s some Denis Johnson in it. She describes the love for his work, and for the wrecked characters in it, that she and others felt this way: “It was hero worship of totaled souls, by totaled souls.”

Johnson’s characters drove big old cars. About a $60 Chevrolet, a narrator in his collection “Jesus’ Son” comments: “It was the kind of thing you could bang into a phone pole with and nothing would happen at all.” The cars Kushner comes to own are in vastly better shape: a 1963 Chevy Impala and a 1964 Ford Galaxie.

She describes, with typical aphoristic grace, being in that champagne-colored Impala on a long drive, alone, in the late 1990s. She hits a wall of rain, and she writes:

“I’ve had old cars that leak around the windshield; this one did not. It had working heat and A.C., a functioning radio, intact weather stripping, wipers — these things are luxury and civilization in an antique car. It’s chamber music: You feel on top of the world when you’re dry and moving along in a downpour. In a new car, in which everything is plastic and somewhat ugly and works today but will break eventually, there’s no thrill to function.”

This book’s title comes from “White Room,” the Cream song. “At the party,” the lyric goes, “she was kindness in the hard crowd.” It’s a good line, Kushner observes.

The author spends time in hard crowds: with bikers, truckers, tattoo artists, the members of punk bands. This book has a real gallery of souls. One of Kushner’s crucial realizations comes near the end, when she admits that she is, herself, not so hard as she might have thought or wanted.

“Part of my parents’ influence was this bohemian idea that real meaning lay with the most brightly alive people, those who were free to wreck themselves,” she writes. “I admired a lot of these people I’m describing to you. I put them above myself in a hierarchy that is re-established in the fact that I am the one who lived to tell.”

She continues, in as strong a statement about artistic purpose and sensibility as I’ve read in a while:

“I was the weak link, the mind always at some remove: watching myself and other people, absorbing the events of their lives and mine. To be hard is to let things roll off you, to live in the present, to not dwell or worry. 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.”

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