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LITERATURE: Coming of Age in a Grittier SF — Rachel Kushner shines in a new essay collection

By Paul Wilner

Rachel Kushner

“I decided that the real-world places and the people I knew would never be in books unless I wrote the books,’’ Rachel Kushner notes in her new collection, The Hard Crowd: Essays 2000–2020 (Scribner). “So I deputized myself World’s Leading Expert on ten square blocks of the Sunset District, the west section of the Great Highway, a few blocks in the Tenderloin.” The tone is self-mocking, but she’s dead on.

Kushner, whose Hard Crowd memories were published in The New Yorker earlier this year, made her literary mark with four critically lauded novels — most recently, 2018’s The Mars Room, whose protagonist, Romy Hall, is serving two consecutive life sentences at a prison in the Central Valley. “A lot of the book is inspired by people I grew up with,’’ Kushner says, in a phone call from her Los Angeles home. “Romy is a girl from the Sunset. How she tries to account for what she grew up with, how she ended up — a lot of that is very familiar to me.’’

Kushner went to Hoover Middle School and was accepted at Lowell High School when she was 12 (she skipped seventh grade), but transferred to Washington. “I remember being excited that I got in [to Lowell], but I didn’t know anyone there — I’d just walk around at lunch by myself,” she recalls. And she missed her Inner Sunset friends. “That world was pretty tough. In my social group, they mostly went to McAteer, or Lincoln or John O’Connell, if they even wanted to go on at all.” She started UC Berkeley at 16, where her studies focused on American policy in Central America, which provided grist for her first novel, 2008’s Telex From Cuba.

Rachel Kushner’s collection of essays sheds light on her teenage years in San Francisco.

The new collection skips effortlessly between high and low culture — from a near-disastrous motorcycle race on the Baja peninsula to artists and writers she admires. No matter the subject, she sticks the landing. The heart of the collection are two autobiographical essays. Not With the Band describes post-UC stints bartending at the Blue Lamp in the Tenderloin and working for the Warfield Theatre. She worked a private event for the Rolling Stones — Keith Richards closed the joint, but Mick Jagger “left before midnight with a socialite from Mill Valley’’ — and dealt with unapologetically messy Deadheads. An after-hours show by PJ Harvey at Hotel Utah was more inspiring. “I think I left at about five a.m., and she was still playing,” Kushner writes. “Just after that, I quit my job and changed my life.’’

The title essay deals with her complicated emotions — loyalty to the milieu she grew up in, amid the recognition that her path is inexorably different. “To be hard is to let things roll off you, to live in the present,’’ she writes. “And even though I stayed out late … some part of me had left early. To become a writer is to have left early no matter what time you got home.’’

What’s next?

“I have two different novels — one set in San Francisco in the ’70s, and another in Ukiah in the same period,” she says. “That’s probably the one I’m focusing on.”

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