ion 1973, Tom Wolfe edited a collection that cast a long shadow over American letters. The New Journalism gathered together the work of crack young writers such as Joan Didion, Hunter S Thompson and Truman Capote. It epitomised a style of reportage that drew the writer into the frame, no longer neutral witness but active participant, a character as sharply dressed and developed as any of their subjects. As a gen-X teenager, I stole it from my father’s shelf and it helped feed a fantasy vision of what a writer should be: ironic, experienced, hard-boiled, and above all present at the scene, a mode encapsulated by the famous photograph of Didion lounging against a white Stingray, looking antsy.
The cover of Rachel Kushner’s new essay collection, The Hard Crowd, brought all these dreamy vistas back. Kushner is an American novelist, here snapped leaning, Didion-style, on the trunk of her Ford Galaxie 500 (black cherry, natch), dressed in a miniskirt and squinting quizzically into the sun. Kushner was there, whether there means wiping out in the Mexican desert at 130mph during a punishing long-distance motorcycle race, or serving beers alongside Keith Richards at a private party at the Fillmore East.
She came to prominence with her 2013 novel, The Flamethrowers, which straddles the 1970s New York art world and the revolutionary ferment in Italy in the same period. Art and revolution are recurring preoccupations, as are bikes, cars, things that travel freely. Whether she’s writing about Jeff Koons, prison abolition or a Palestinian refugee camp in Jerusalem, she’s interested in appearances, and in the deeper currents a surface detail might betray.
Nel an earlier essay on the Brazilian novelist Clarice Lispector, she observes that Lispector’s commitment to the production of a feminine exterior was so total that in later life she had her makeup applied permanently each month, while she slept. But despite this alarming devotion to the external, Lispector’s real gift was for documenting “life stripped of what is the horizon and almost the whole of literature: the social sphere, family life, the contemporary scene, historical time, e, ovviamente, romantic love”.
That kind of paradox – high gloss, mysterious depths – attracts Kushner, as well as contributing mightily to her own appeal (it’s hard to forget a New Yorker profile that included the immortal line: “Butter keeps her slim”). Her writing is magnetised by outlaw sensibility, hard lives lived at a slant, art made in conditions of ferment and unrest, though she rarely serves a platter that isn’t style-mag ready.
Artists considered here include Denis Johnson, Cormac McCarthy and Marguerite Duras, tough guys and dames who invented a new language for their own preoccupations (as for her own casual handling: “Duras was not such a sick puppy as Bataille”). She makes a pretty convincing case for a political dimension to Jeff Koons’s vacuities and mirrored surfaces, engages repeatedly with the Italian avant garde and writes best of all about an artist friend whose death undoes a spell of nihilism.
One of the most telling essays concerns David Rattray’s cult classic How I Became One of the Invisible, an account of his quasi-mystical adventures in the company of a group of American outlaws and bohemians. Rattray was compelled “by people who possess a talent for life, people who are not seekers of the invisible but embodied creatures whose life è the poem”. Kushner’s parents were friends with Rattray, and she muses on the way this kind of writer is fated always to stand outside the free spirits who inspire them, too self-conscious to be truly immersed, no matter how much of a participant-observer they might be.
It’s not an abstract concern. The same question pulses through the standout title essay like a melancholy undertow. The Hard Crowd is a memoir about growing up in San Francisco, a “Sunset girl” in black suede boots, “huffing nitrous for kicks while earning $1.85 an hour”. It’s not just that Kushner is looking back on the distant city of youth; more that she’s the sole survivor of a wild crowd done down by prison, drugs, untimely death. Friends like Thomas, say: a hustler in aviators and “white tennies” whose head turned up in a dumpster three blocks from where Kushner once tended bar.
Some of these memories have already surfaced in Kushner’s novels, forming the most convincing reaches of the otherwise oddly unsatisfactory The Mars Room. What she remembers is a whole world, but does the act of immortalising it in language also drain it of its power, “neon, in pink, red, and warm white, bleeding into the fog”? 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, often shorn of definite articles or odd words, so they rev and bucket along.
“I was the soft one," lei dice, but that’s just circumstantial. Hardness is not the most valued attribute right now. Writing, especially first-person writing, has become increasingly prized for its porosity, its capacity to enact and relay vulnerability. That New Journalism style, live hard and keep your eyes open, has long since given way to the millennial cult of the personal essay, with its performance of pain, its earnest display of wounds received and lessons learned. But Kushner brings it all flooding back. Even if I’m sceptical of its dazzle, I’m glad to taste something this sharp, this smart.
Olivia Laing’s new book, Everybody, will be published on 29 aprile