“Exuberant and accessible” – The Hard Crowd by Rachel Kushner

RKTHCThis collection brings together a broad sampling of Kushner’s non-fiction from across the past two decades, spanning art writing, film criticism, literary criticism, memoir, and documentary journalism, examining everything from the urban geography of her hometown of San Francisco to an introduction to the revolutionaries of 1970s Italy. If you’ve read her novels, you’ll find echoes of particular recurrent concerns: classic motorcycles, crime (both petty and terror), misogyny (takedowns thereof), a frenzied, joyous, desperate nightlife, the wonder and power of art.

Let’s take a sample. One of my favourites was ‘Is Prison Necessary?’, a detailed portrait of Ruth Wilson Gilmore, prison abolitionist, academic and campaigner. Fans of The Mars Room will latch onto this one: Kushner, via Gilmore, sketches out a savagely compelling case for systemic change when it comes to discipline and incarceration; drawing upon the works of Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander and more, she argues the need, as Gilmore puts it, to ‘change the conditions under which violence prevails’ such that not only will we not want prisons, but we don’t need them. In a similar vein – passionate but cool-headed reportage – an earlier essay, ‘We Are Orphans Here’, details the time Kushner spent in Shuafat Refugee Camp, East Jerusalem (the only Palestinian camp on Israeli-administered soil), in the company of a community organiser, Baba Nababta, since deceased. As I read this essay – as I’m writing this review – Palestinian Muslims ought to be celebrating Eid al-Fitr, but Israeli armed forces are bombing Gaza and Israeli police are patrolling this same camp. Everything Kushner shows us about the Shuafat residents’ lack of rights and facilities, lack of medical facilities and schools, is cast for me in vivid and horrible light – though of course it would always have been horrible – as the daily news reports reaching the UK saturate my reading of this essay. ‘In 2015’, Kushner writes, ‘three children from the Shuafat Refugee Camp lost eyes from sponge bullets shot by Israeli forces.’ In 2021, eight children from a single Gazan family died in an aerial bombing.

The police, Kushner tells us (and reminds us later in the prison piece) ‘are not part of my hero narrative.’ Kushner’s heroes are brave, terrified, scarred; they’re normal people, destroyed by state systems that present them as less than human. And this is true in other instances: in ‘Woman in Revolt’ she presents the case of Anna: sixteen, homeless, pregnant, an addict, and the eponymous real-life star of Alberto Grifo and Massimo Sarchielli’s 1972 cult Italian movie. Exploited by the filmmakers, who saw in her the possibility for creating their own ‘hero narrative’ (themselves the heroes, the saviours), Anna ultimately escapes – from them, from her partner (a crew member who met her on-set) and from her baby – and Grifo and Sarchielli are left reeling: how could she leave them in the lurch like this? For Kushner, Anna is a revolutionary: she will not be controlled or contained by any hegemonic account of who she is or how she ought to want to live.

Elsewhere, we see Kushner’s virtuosic range of cultural references, from fine art and filmmaking to literature: her paeans to Denis Johnson (I was gratified to see one of my all-time favourites, Angels, name-checked as a hell of a novel), Cormac McCarthy, Luchino Visconti, Thomas Demand, Marguerite Duras and Clarice Lispector are enough to make me run to the library/cinema/gallery – or at least tap my boot impatiently until they’re all open again. I’d love to hear Kushner on Covid, in fact. Whether she’s recounting the time she raced her Ninja 600 in the Cabo 1000 down the Baja peninsula, or telling us about her stints tending bar in the San Francisco, comping drinks for Carlos Santana and suffering through an unspeakably painful Rod Stewart gig, we’re right there with her. It’s a rush, it’s a blast, it’s happening now.

Any Cop?: This is an exuberant and accessible essay question that’s also a savage excoriation of colonialism, capitalism and authoritarianism. Music fans, bikers, art-fanatics, bookish sorts, anti-capitalists of all stripes: this is for you.

Valerie O’Riordan

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