Reviewed by Max Dunbar
The Gallery of Souls I’ve Known
Many years ago, novelist Rachel Kushner worked in a bar called the Blue Lamp in San Francisco.
On weekday afternoons, the Blue Lamp was quiet except for the old drunks who sat at the bar. One of them, a regular, used to tell me he thought I could ‘do better’ with my life. He would assess me physically as he said it, as if his approval of my looks was a sign that I might manage to avoid complete ruin.
Kushner’s essay collection shows the flaw to the old drunk’s claim.
The essay form has had an unlikely boost in recent years – Sarah Kendzior’s The View From Flyover County became a defining text of the Trump years, Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari looked at austerity Britain through lived experience. Zadie Smith’s collection Feel Free is better than any of her novels.
Still, I’d never come across essays that had so much life in them until I read Kushner’s The Hard Crowd. It opens with ‘Girl on a Motorcycle’. Rachel Kushner turns out to be a biking enthusiast. She competed in the Cabo 100, which is a 1,100 mile race through the Baja Peninsula in borderland Mexico. The race takes four or five days. Riders have to do a hundred mile speed average, though they can make pitstops. The goal is not so much victory as physical survival.
Kushner crashed her bike at 130 miles. A rider called ‘Doc’, came to her aid and got her into a nearby hotel, where she awaited the ‘crash truck’ to take her back to California. The crash truck arrived at midnight, ’empty beer cans rolling around in the back of the truck with everyone’s travel bags and tools, and Reggae on the River and the two crash truck girls seemed to be having a jolly old time.’ Eventually the truck gets on the road, but at four am it is discovered that the truck bed wasn’t properly secured so everyone’s bags are lost. Eventually the crew make it to a place called ‘The Giggling Marlin’ which is the end-race meetup, they eat and drink and compare racing experience. Kushner spends a couple of days recovering in another hotel. Her bike has been stolen and traced to a family junkyard in Guerrero Negro – ‘I got the feeling the family had contacts who lurked at treacherous points on Highway 1’ – where she buys it back, stripped and useless, for 150 dollars.
Bear in mind that this is just the opening essay.
There are eighteen more like this, and they are not quite as high octane. There are tributes to novelists Clarice Lispector and Marguerite Duras, digressions like a piece on the ‘Gone in Sixty Seconds’ car chase franchise, and ‘Bad Captains’, about ship captains who cause, or flee from shipwrecks. She takes us to a Palestinian refugee camp, and on a packed midnight train over the Alps. ‘Not With The Band’ is a terrific recollection of Kushner’s years working in the music venues of the Tenderloin, and the names she met there: Jerry Garcia ‘would get so high during the break between sets that on at least one occasion paramedics were called, and Jerry was revived before the band came back onstage to play their second set’; Courtney Love ‘came onstage and pointed out people in the crowd who she’d dated or had bad sex with and described their various faults into the microphone.’
Little of this stuff gets into her novels. The Flamethrowers is her most autobiographical fiction, with plenty of motorbike racing and Italian anarchists, and this is perhaps why it’s the most sprawling and least coherent of her works. I think Kushner drew on her early life in San Francisco for Remy Hall’s background in the seminal prison novel The Mars Room, perhaps the best novel of incarceration ever written, and there is a stunning essay ‘Is Prison Necessary?’ about the nascent prison abolition movement – anyone who has read Michelle Alexander’s work The New Jim Crow needs to read this article, which asks hard questions and charts developments in the carceral state since Alexander’s book came out. Politics inform the novels but I couldn’t see much autobiographical overlap. They are just that, works of fiction.
‘Sometimes I’m boggled by the gallery of souls I’ve known,’ Kusher writes in the title essay. ‘By the lore. The wild history, unsung. People crowd in and talk to me in dreams.’ There are ghosts, inevitably: ‘People who died or disappeared or whose connection to my own life makes no logical sense, but exists as strong as ever’. A man Kushner knew from a bar called The Blue Lamp ends up murdered, his head found in a garbage bag. The man who won the Cabo 100 when Kushner crashed in it, crashed himself and died in the same race four years later. Randy Bradescu was left in the road alone, his wallet stolen, his relatives had to go through a lot of horrible consular practicalities to get his body returned. As Hunter S Thompson said in his own motorcycle essay: ‘The Edge… There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over. The others – the living – are those who pushed their control as far as they felt they could handle it, and then pulled back, or slowed down, or did whatever they had to when it came time to choose between Now and Later.’
Sooner or later we all have to decide between the now and the later. Kushner’s writing buzzes with the feel of life lived, full and chaotic, a capture of the Now, near effortless, and crowded with strange souls. There is a line that clangs in my head when I read these essays, from ‘The Three-Penny Opera’, by Frank O’Hara: ‘You wouldn’t be able to tell who was who, though. Those were intricate days.’
Max blogs at maxdunbar.wordpress.com
Rachel Kushner, The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020, (Jonathan Cape, 2021), 978-1787332973, 224 pp., hardback.
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