Among the Thugs
by Brian Phillips · December 13, 2007
If dead-eyed, scrap-cheeked, hairless, sharp-toothed, chalk-skinned, thieving, bilious, idiot boys in England, bluely tattooed, lips sensually numbed and hypnotized by lager, set out to eat each other’s eyeballs at the behest of Hitler-loving middle-aged real-estate men drunk with the scent of their own sweat-soaked smirking desperate wife-killing mustaches, please, someone, tell me, what on Earth has it got to do with me? It tolls for thee, etc., but one thing I’ve never understood about the fetishization of hooliganism among a certain class of (liberal, educated, comfortable, not looking to invite a truncheon to the face) football fans is what it has to do with football: that is, how it’s meant to involve me in mankind rather than give me a privileged window onto nominally real Clockwork Orange freaks whom I can compartmentalize as fictional characters while simultaneously using their reality to get a danger kick out of the deep cultural background to my watching a sport on television. It’s dehumanizing, I mean; the kid in Palo Alto leaving an Amazon review for Among the Thugs that raves about its “ultraviolence” isn’t approaching the subject with sympathy for these broken specimens or for their victims, or with sociological curiosity, or with anything other than lust for an aesthetic drug: the two-doors-down thrill of somebody else punching somebody else in the face, neatly delivered by the ex-editor of Granta between Facebook visits and a glance at Yahoo! news. It’s not a true story, it’s based on a true story. I’m not patient with this. There’s something wrong with this.
I don’t know what it’s like in the rest of the world. In America, people who like thinking about “soccer violence” are not people who will ever go to a soccer match at which violence might take place. It’s just a line to chuckle to once you’ve got the commentary track to your Fight Club DVD memorized. Dude, those people are crazy.
Bill Buford’s book isn’t looking to feed into this attitude, exactly. But then, it kind of is, because what interests Buford is the pleasure of being caught up in a crowd, and specifically the pleasure of being caught up in a crowd that turns violent, which is basically an aesthetic pleasure, though he doesn’t use that word: he says it’s a drug, it’s entertainment, it’s an escape. It’s absinthe and Star Wars and the decadent endpoint of highly cultivated uncultivatable sensibilities. And the voyeuristic fascination with the details, with which (fascination and details) Buford’s book is drenched, is basically just the same aesthetic pleasure at one safe remove; it’s a kind of mental slumming through other people’s pain.
I could tell you why I don’t really trust it, this book, why I don’t quite see the value of this sort of post-Truman Capote, post-Norman Mailer New Yorker-style participatory journalism in which the random clatter of real life somehow helpfully falls into place within the outlines of an interpretive theory (but real life isn’t like that, as Chekhov said about Ibsen). But the fudged details, the ones I caught, aren’t really what bothered me. I just couldn’t quite take the X-Games theater, the marketed savvy of it all. The potential for this behavior is in all of us, he says, but the way he shows us that fact (involving us in the pleasure the hooligans take in surrounding a teenaged Italian boy and kicking him until he’s unconscious) really just invites us to enjoy the fact that the actuality of this behavior is in some of us. That is, in someone else.
I suppose it would be possible to read Among the Thugs with a detached curiosity and learn something and ask a question when you see the author at the 92nd Street Y. It’s that it’s so possible, so widely and deliberately and cannily possible, to read it in that other way that drove me off.
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