Book Review: Among the Thugs

May 21, 2010

I BOUGHT Among the Thugs because Ira Glass told me to. If you don’t know the name Ira Glass, then you probably also don’t know about the radio show This American Life, which Ira hosts weekly. This American Life is brilliant—so is Bill Buford’s Among the Thugs.

Terminology and other mostly uninteresting facts: “Thug” is a European football fan, also known as a “hooligan”. Among the thugs is a non-fiction book that Ira Glass recommended in the introduction to another book called The New Kings of Non-Fiction of which I only read the introduction and then put it down to go find Bill Buford’s book. I do not know Ira Glass personally.

Among the Thugs opens with Bill Buford running into a group of Manchester United thugs on a London subway car and ends 7 years later when Bill and the thugs part ways. But the book isn’t really about football; it’s about humans, psychology, crowds.

I read a bit about crowds during my semester as a sociology major, but my scant knowledge didn’t prepare me for the lunacy described in the book (one act of violence being so unbelievable I doubt I could bring myself to re-describe it).

The book confirmed something for me: there’s no limit to humanity. No limit to the depths of knowledge we can plumb. No limit to the depths of horrors we can conjure. It scared me to see what ordinary men are capable of, and I wondered what I would do were I there, were a crowd forming, were I caught in the middle. Apparently, the crowd always wins—it’s on our blood, our DNA, our molecules: we need to congregate, multiply, multiply, multiply, and then, we need to destroy.

I’d like to think I’m above that. I’m probably not.

I tried to understand what was pulling me so easily through the pages of Bill’s book while a pile of half-finished titles sat next to my bed. I think (in addition to Bill’s talent as a writer) I was looking for redemption. Like Bill, I needed to understand what made those hooligans tick, because, somehow, it’s also what makes me tick. I read the book for the same reason Bill wrote it: because we both believe that by understanding atrocity we can redeem it.

I don’t think we are far off, Bill and I. Don’t we say, “oh, well, that’s understandable” and shrug off horror? A shopkeeper kills thieves in self-defense: understandable. A woman with terminal cancer jumps off the Golden Gate bridge: understandable. The problem is that some things are not understandable. The problem is that some things are beyond what makes any sense. The problem is that some things— and this scares me to say—are unredeemable.

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