Kushner’s political passion jelled at UC Berkeley, where she stayed on an extra year to write a thesis on U.S. policy in Nicaragua. She was encouraged to pursue a Ph.D. but instead tried moving to New York, only to return, “defeated by the city,” six months later. She went on to work at the Blue Lamp, a heroin-friendly dive in the Tenderloin, where she’d cross paths with Kreayshawn, now a rapper and then a toddler. Among the others she met then was someone who’d robbed banks—not as a radical but as a junkie. In a late moment of self-revelation in The Flamethrowers, Reno tells us, “I was shopping for experience.” But Kushner denies that she’s ever slummed it with any ulterior motive. “It’s important to me,” she e-mailed at one point, “that you understand that I do not have experiences in order to write about them. I live in order to live.”
Kushner’s Blue Lamp night shifts left her days free to ride motorcycles. Prodded by a mechanic she was dating, she entered an illegal race in Baja and crashed at 140 miles per hour, miraculously hobbling away, as Reno does on the Bonneville Salt Flats, with a sprained ankle and severe road rash. “I didn’t feel fear as much as humiliation,” she says. “When I read Céline, I think of that moment, because he’s just so self-deprecating: ‘Great, I die now.’ ”
Her parents don’t remember hearing about the crash for a decade. But they were worrying. Laissez-faire as they were, they prized accomplishment. Her father’s favorite question, Kushner recalls, was: “What’s your contribution to the world?” (He’s spent his life trying to cure breast cancer.)
“I wanted her to use her multidimensional talents in some way,” Peter Kushner says. “I just hoped she would find her career outside the bar.” Rachel floated the idea of graduate studies in English, but her mother—an English-department refugee—just said, “For God’s sake, learn how to write first.” Peter remembers giving her similar advice on a drive across the Bay Bridge. “I said, ‘You know, if you write a book of your own, it’s there for all time.’ ”
Having written some stories and poems in high school (along with a first-grade booklet about “the richest cat in hestery”), Kushner took a workshop at the New College of California. Her teacher, the poet Lyn Hejinian, took her out to coffee and shared her own past; she’d once run away to Mexico with a hot biker. “I felt acknowledged by her,” Kushner says. “She was saying you could be a serious person even though you’re a frivolous hipster on a motorcycle.”
Hejinian encouraged Kushner to go to Columbia for an M.F.A., because “you can make connections in the city itself.” And so she did, beginning with her workshop teacher, Jonathan Franzen.
“She was a happening person,” Franzen remembers. “She didn’t come in in an anxious, preprofessional way. She walked in like somebody who had been out in the real world until five minutes ago,” and “the work showed it. She wasn’t preoccupied with form. She wasn’t copying anybody. She wrote the most interesting stories of anyone in that class, but she wrote in a very artless way.” She turned in “semi-processed raw material,” he says. “As far as I can tell, she’s still teaching herself how to write.” Franzen referred her to his influential agent, Susan Golomb, who took her on.
Kushner made connections with writers in those years but not many friends. She found authors’ interests too domestic and disparate, stored up in separate silos according to style and subject matter. “I’ve never really been one for just hanging out,” she says. “I liked having a social life that had a kind of intellectual purpose.”
She found that life in the art world—not just what she calls its “one shared specific discourse” but the scene’s sense of itself, which felt like Kushner’s own: both above and below the “technocracy,” brainy one moment and outrageous the next, rebellious but eager to make lasting contributions, and full of people who fancied themselves a menace to bourgeois life even as they floated above the class structure. And like another of Kushner’s fascinations, utopian politics, it fed the fantasy that it might be possible to live outside the real world.
Through the painter Alex Brown, Kushner got to know artists affiliated with the Lower East Side’s Feature gallery. Some of her evenings were spent at a friend’s place back on Mulberry Street. “I didn’t really know that much about the art world at all,” she says. “Mostly it was people talking over my head.” But she was a quick study—she’d soon be writing for Artforum, a lot—and she wanted nothing from them but inspiration. “All of the people seemed so interesting to me. They were characters who kind of performed themselves for the audience of their friends.”
One of them, a key mentor, was Knight Landesman, the Artforum publisher. After finishing her M.F.A., Kushner interviewed to be Artforum’s managing editor, but Landesman steered her instead to a job at Bomb, a downtown quarterly with the mission statement “Revelations happen in conversations.” He spoke to me in his office, stark white except for mounds of loose papers and framed art, and wore orange from his collar down to his clogs. “She’s comfortable in the art world,” he said. “It’s a place that I think she enjoys looking at. It’s one of the few places in America where all the classes meet.”