The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020
I’ve grown to love essays in the last couple years. Did I pick this collection up because it starts with a story about the author’s motorcycle racing history? Yes, of course I did. But I kept with it because I found that I appreciate Rachel’s view of international events and world politics. I like how she and I seem to share an ethos that places us as small beings in an infinite universe, while simultaneously being creatures of large impact and importance in the world around us and to our chosen people. This collection of essays has earned a permanent place on my shelf, and if you pick it up, I guarantee you, you’ll leave it behind with at least one or two new ideas, and maybe a new appreciation for the dust on your shoes.
Now includes a new essay, “Naked Childhood,” about Kushner’s family, their converted school bus, and the Summers of Love in Oregon and San Francisco!
“The Hard Crowd is wild, wide-ranging, and unsparingly intelligent throughout.” —Taylor Antrim, Vogue
From a writer celebrated for her “chops, ambition, and killer instinct” (John Powers, Fresh Air), a career-spanning collection of spectacular essays about politics and culture.
Rachel Kushner has established herself as “the most vital and interesting American novelist working today” (The Millions) and as a master of the essay form. In The Hard Crowd, she gathers a selection of her writing from over the course of the last twenty years that addresses the most pressing political, artistic, and cultural issues of our times—and illuminates the themes and real-life experiences that inform her fiction.
In twenty razor-sharp essays, The Hard Crowd spans literary journalism, memoir, cultural criticism, and writing about art and literature, including pieces on Jeff Koons, Denis Johnson, and Marguerite Duras. Kushner takes us on a journey through a Palestinian refugee camp, an illegal motorcycle race down the Baja Peninsula, 1970s wildcat strikes in Fiat factories, her love of classic cars, and her young life in the music scene of her hometown, San Francisco. The closing, eponymous essay is her manifesto on nostalgia, doom, and writing.
These pieces, new and old, are electric, vivid, and wry, and they provide an opportunity to witness the evolution and range of one of our most dazzling and fearless writers. “Kushner writes with startling detail, imagination, and gallows humor,” said Leah Greenblatt in Entertainment Weekly, and, from Paula McLain in the Wall Street Journal: “The authority and precision of Kushner’s writing is impressive, but it’s the gorgeous ferocity that will stick with me.”
Praise for The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020
Praise for THE HARD CROWD
Named a Best Book of 2021 by The AV Club, Booklist, and Vogue!
“I honestly don't know how she is able to know so much (about motorcycle racing, Italian radical politics) and convey all of it in such a completely entertaining and mesmerizing way.”
“This is a book of attitude—attitude distilled so finely it becomes philosophy, a matter of telling truth from lie.”
“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… There are intuitive appraisals of writers such as Denis Johnson, Clarice Lispector, Marguerite Duras and Cormac McCarthy… There are a pair of long, moving essays about growing up semi-feral in San Francisco in the late 1970s and early ’80s… 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 has a] wary voice, cool and wise, with real power and control…[and] typical aphoristic grace.”
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
“[Kushner’s] writing is magnetized by outlaw sensibility, hard lives lived at a slant, art made in conditions of ferment and unrest … She’s mining a rich seam of specificity, her writing charged by the dangers she ran up against. And then there’s the frank pleasure of her sentences … I’m glad to taste something this sharp, this smart.”
—Olivia Laing, The Guardian
“Readers of Kushner’s high-voltage novels, including The Mars Room, can’t help but wonder about the source of her far-roaming and omnivorous imagination. Much is revealed in this vitalizing essay collection. Kushner’s autobiographical pieces illuminate complicated aspects of her adventurous life and why and how she developed the skills to write about it with such breath-catching clarity and polished rigor, the literary equivalent of the fine-tuned mechanics of the motorcycles and classic cars she treasures…riveting…astute and vigorous…tell she does, steering her way through perilous curves with steely agility and purpose, leaving her passengers exultant and enlightened.”
—Donna Seaman, Booklist, STARRED review
“The critic James Wood uses the term “serious noticing” to describe the kind of looking that great novelists do, the revelatory and incisive attention to detail that “rescues the life of things.” Kushner does a lot of serious noticing in this book, of people, places, images, and texts. She also reflects on the various “hard crowds” she has been a part of … with vivid, transporting detail. She recalls the friends she had in those years, when she was waitressing and hanging around in bars in the Tenderloin, as some of “the most brightly alive people” she ever knew. Many parts of this book read like a love letter to them, as well as to her younger self and to the places and experiences that shaped her.”
—Cornelia Channing, The Paris Review
“The title derives from lyrics of a Cream song, White Room: ‘At the party she was kindness in the hard crowd.’ It was released in 1968, the year Kushner was born. She grew up immersed in the subculture of her parents’ generation, that era between the beatniks and hippies, with their progressive values and mores, their world view informed by the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement – even though she self-deprecatingly, and perhaps guiltily, and unconvincingly, confesses to being a ‘bourgeois’. A bourgeois who can write fluently about workers, factory conditions, capitalism, Cuba, Palestine, Italy’s Brigate Rosse (the defunct Red Brigades) as well as literature and the avant-garde in art and photography. She was a tearaway, a hooligan and thief, a barmaid, a good-time girl (‘We partied with strangers, which is what I spent a lot of my youth doing’), took drugs, participated in illegal rides in which many friends died (she survived a 130mph motorcycle crash), hung out in sleazy and dark places, but was always independent, self-reliant, confident – and, of course, educated and talented. … In the end Kushner worries that looking back across the landscape of her life and talking so much about her own life, ‘not only can’t matter to you, it might bore you.’
Never, never, never. A good writer can write eloquently about anything and make it interesting. And Kushner is one good writer.”
—Danny Morrison, The Irish Examiner
"Award-winning novelist Kushner... who's also turned toward criminal-justice-reform activism, shifts modes with an essay collection that promises something for all who love her work. (Yes, there will be motorcycles)."
"Kushner, the author of three acclaimed novels, including 2018’s dazzling prison-set The Mars Room, turns her fierce intellect to nonfiction in this essay collection. Her interests—vintage cars and motorcycles, the art world, the late Denis Johnson (whose work is clearly an influence here), tough underground scenes of all kinds—won’t surprise readers of her fiction, but there’s a rigorous specificity to the essays that draws you in. The unmissable lead essay, “Girl on a Motorcycle,” is a thrilling road-racing adventure set in Baja California, and “Not With the Band” (originally published in Vogue) offers insight into Kushner’s misspent youth, bartending at San Francisco rock venues. The Hard Crowd is wild, wide-ranging, and unsparingly intelligent throughout."
—Taylor Antrim, Vogue
“You need not have read Rachel Kushner’s novels to appreciate her prismatic essay collection, The Hard Crowd. If you have, though, it’s not hard to see the material preoccupations of her fiction refracted in the 19 essays here…Kushner writes with equal verve about the self’s ecstatic movement into the world and the world’s permeation of self.”
—Anita Felicelli, Alta
“[Kushner’s] brevity and daring claims evince a get-in-get-out showmanship more often seen in poetry—that sharp final turn that both expands a poem’s motives and leaves one with the rare feeling of wanting more. That having been said, some of the collection’s best essays are also the longest, allowing Kushner to stretch out and more fully elucidate the lives and work of her subjects. Tying together and making explicit all of Kushner’s heady influences, “The Hard Crowd” acts like a code, and coda, to all that came before.”
—Laura Adamczyk, AV Club
“What type of woman writes like this? In Kushner’s latest book—her first collection of nonfiction, called The Hard Crowd—she answers this question at length, on her own terms. The Hard Crowd will doubtlessly appeal to fans of her fiction. … But the book’s appeal is not limited to existing fans, or even readers who share her interests; Kushner can spin a compelling story out of the most esoteric subjects or minute details... Although the dominant mode of The Hard Crowd is reflective, it also paints Kushner as a writer attuned to the present, even the future.
—Elliot Frank, Chicago Review of Books
“The Hard Crowd — a collection of essays written over the last 20 years — is testimony to the breadth both of Kushner’s experience and of her intellectual convictions… gallant and moving…Her attraction is to chivalrous gestures, physical daring…and maybe also to lost causes… Kushner is unusual in combining her taste for ‘the old, weird America’ of desert highways, vintage cars, autodidact loners, with a grounding in 20th-century European thought, an interest in the ways in which working-class struggle on the Continent was filtered into industrial action, armed revolt or documentary art. These competing aesthetic/moral strands are what form the double whammy in Kushner’s prose: a narrative voice that’s hip, raspy, rich in caustic or deadpan one-liners, and an ethic of almost wide-eyed ‘permeability,’ of feeling painfully responsible for history’s wrongs.”
—Fernanda Eberstadt, New York Times Book Review
“Rachel Kushner, primarily known for her fiction, proves she’s also a master essayist in The Hard Crowd: 19 pieces of memoir and criticism that display her omnivorous tastes in literature, art and history… Throughout these essays, Kushner steals back subjects normally hopelessly tied to masculinity, like classic cars, dive bars, Marxism and motorcycles. Despite these essays spanning two decades, there’s something essentially Kushner-esque threaded throughout, a sense of cool girl remove, which is tempered by her engaged activist interests in prison abolition and workers rights… Despite Kushner’s reluctance to take center stage, the personal essays shine. For San Franciscans, the book’s titular essay The Hard Crowd is worth the price of admission alone… In the closing essays she writes, ‘I’m talking about my own life. Which not only can’t matter to you, it might bore you.’ Bore us? Hardly. Sounds exactly like something the coolest, smartest girl in the room might say, knowing full well we’re under her spell.”
—Anisse Gross, The San Francisco Chronicle
“The Hard Crowd, a collection of essays written between 2000 and 2020, confirms [Kushner] as a writer who, at least until recently, has preferred participation over observation. “Girl on a Motorcycle” establishes her adventurous spirit. … she brings to her Ninja 600 motorcycle the care and attention she’ll later devote to essays like this. … The motorcycle becomes a metaphor for language itself, which, despite any male influence, she has the freedom to steer where she likes. What matters is the attitude… The Hard Crowd memorializes the vanished people and places of Kushner’s youth in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district. She drew on this world for her novel The Mars Room (2018), but the essay pulls together the experiences that ‘stay stubbornly resistant to knowledge or synthesis,’ and that she can’t yet transform into fiction. In this loosest, but also most ambitious essay, she follows the links of memory wherever they lead. … This technique gives the essay a dreamlike quality, at once luminously beautiful and abruptly horrifying.”
—Michael LaPointe, Times Literary Supplement
"The two-time National Book Award nominee turns her inspiringly acerbic tongue on topics including her youth in 1980s San Francisco; a motorcycle race in Baja, Mexico; Jeff Koons; and a plethora of cultural moments in this essay collection of new, expanded, and previously published work."
—Selija Rankin, Entertainment Weekly
"Kushner is a two-time finalist for the National Book Award for Fiction, and her novel The Mars Room is a selection of Alta’s California Book Club. Her new book gathers essays from the past two decades. She offers reportage—including an account of her visit to a Palestinian refugee camp—and literary journalism, memoir, and cultural criticism, interrogating figures such as Denis Johnson and Marguerite Duras."
"Chronicling select writing over the last two decades, Kushner’s latest offers up 19 essays that range from memoir to art criticism to journalism to political commentary. Accounts of visiting a Palestinian refugee camp and attending an illegal motorcycle race in Baja California are joined by stories of growing up in San Francisco, insights on artist Jeff Koons and authors Marguerite Duras, Denis Johnson and Clarice Lispector and thoughts on the 2012 captain who crashed an Italian cruise ship. And for those who love Kushner’s acclaimed “The Flamethrowers,” the essay “Made to Burn” offers inspiration for the novel."
—Lesley Kennedy, CNN
"If you want to ride in a famous motorcycle race, then hang out with Keith Richards in 1990s San Francisco and finally consider the work of Marguerite Duras — and who wouldn’t? — all you have to do is pick up this wide-ranging book of journalism from the novelist behind 'The Flamethrowers.'"
—Bethanne Patrick, The Washington Post
“[A] beautiful writer. [Rachel Kushner] knows how to absorb you into the universe that she's describing . . . she's really good at bringing you along.
—Lisa Lucas, Conde Naste Traveler
“Novelist Kushner’s first essay collection includes criticism — she writes about artist Jeff Koons and author Denis Johnson — and memoir, including a piece about her time working at a concert venue in San Francisco. But the real appeal to fans of Kushner’s novels “The Flame Throwers” and “The Mars Room” will be the essays that dig into the influences and obsessions that inform her fiction, including motorcycle racing, classic cars and radical politics.”
—Jim Kiest, San Antonio Express
"Rachel Kushner’s dauntless essays include pieces on Jeff Koons and Marguerite Duras, an illegal motorcycle race down Baja, and a Fiat strike, all propelled by a singular and ferocious curiosity; her sober, often sardonic, voice keeps the train on the tracks."
“Kushner proves as shrewd and daring in her essays as she is in her fiction, and a reader gets the same sense of tagging along with an author who has slept rough, thought hard, and gotten into her car to drive out and witness an event with her own two eyes…[a] dazzling collection.”
—Christopher Bollen, Interview
"Herein are collected two decades of literary journalism, cultural criticism, and memoir by the author of the lauded Telex from Cuba, The Flamethrowers, and The Mars Room. Come for the sharp portraits of Jeff Koons and Denis Johnson, the blistering reportage from refugee camps and illegal motorcycle races, or the light-with-laughter-yet-heavy-with-yearning paeans to classic cars and the San Francisco indie scene of the 1980s; stay for the opportunity to witness the maturation of one of the most intelligent and distinctive literary sensibilities of our time."
—Emily Firetog, Lithub
The Hard Crowd, Kushner’s first collection of essays, is marked by the same qualities as her exceptional fiction: the roving, self-assured intelligence of an autodidact, a distrust of easy answers, and a preternatural gift for situating textured human narratives and political struggles within a wide, cinematic frame … each setting and character with cinematic realism and old-school, Dostoyevskian depth. Through these essays we are given access to some of her most powerful influences and instincts. The essays come together to form an image of the writer as a vehicle through which images and experiences pass, rather than a pulpit out of which declarations are issued. In other words, Kushner reminds us of the crucial difference between writing and branding.
—Jennifer Schaffer, The Nation
“The renowned author of The Flamethrowers gathers two decades’ worth of criticism and reportage in a collection that rockets into its own artistic stratosphere. From a motorcycle rally in Mexico to riffs on The Clash and Blondie to under-the-hood observations on craft, Kushner’s swagger is seductive. Equal parts French philosopher and leather-jacketed outlaw, Kushner is probing as she observes of Brazilian writer Claire Lispector, ‘the alienating strangeness of what it means to be alive.’”
“Rachel Kushner's The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000-2020 starts with a bang: an account of her participation in the 1992 Cabo 1000, a perilous motorcycle race from San Ysidro, Calif., to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. But in this collection, featuring 19 pieces of edgy memoir, eclectic journalism and diverse criticism, Kushner consistently delivers on the promise of that exciting opener…this introduction to [Kushner’s] nonfiction showcases the breadth of her talent.”
—Harvey Freedenberg, Shelf Awareness
"Novelist Rachel Kushner blends journalism, memoir and criticism in her new collection of essays. The 19 pieces, which are from the past 20 years of the author’s career, are wide-ranging in scope. In one, Kushner recounts a visit to a Palestinian refugee camp; in another, she reflects on the music scene of her youth in San Francisco. Throughout, her energetic voice carries the reader through as she muses about art, nostalgia, writing and more."
—Annabel Gutterman, Time
“Kushner’s signature literary sensibility emerges and matures in this two decades-long collection of cultural criticism, literary journalism, and memoir, all of it proof positive of her singular way of seeing. In these nineteen forceful, blistering essays, Kushner turns her lens to everything from Jeff Koons to Denis Johnson, Palestinian refugees to Italian radical politics, classic muscle cars to San Francisco’s indie music scene. And yes, of course, there are motorcycles.”