Among the Thugs. By Bill Buford. 317 pages. Norton. $22.95.
For eight years Bill Buford worked two jobs. During the week he edited the chic English literary magazine Granta. On weekends he ran with the soccer hooligans--young Englishmen who lost themselves each Saturday in crowds dedicated to sport, drink and astonishing violence. An American and an intellectual, Buford was revolted--and fascinated--by the bloodlust of his adopted countrymen. He went to their games, endured the profane boasting, ate the same greasy food and drank vast amounts of beer. When they got into trouble, as they so willfully did, he was there to watch. They rioted with clockwork regularity, vandalizing, stealing and often murdering. Hundreds of people have died in soccer riots in the last decade.
Finally fed up with his subjects-and only slightly less disgusted with his obsessive interest in their mischief-Buford concluded that soccer was a pretext. Partisanship and nationalism were pretexts, too. What really excited these thugs-most of them employed, many with families-- was violence. "It's a religion, really," one fan said. "Saturday is our day of worship."
Buford discovered that his subjects, often likable as individuals, became demonic once they joined a crowd. More incredible, Buford discovered that once he joined the rioters, he, too, got seduced by the violence. "The crowd is in all of us. It isn't an instinct or a need ... but, for most of us, the crowd holds out certain essential attractions. It is, like an appetite, something in which dark satisfactions can be found."
For Buford, rioting crowds-be they in London or Los Angeles-transcend their circumstances. Mob violence has less to do with poverty or oppression, he believes, than with abandoning individual will to the larger, ominous power of the crowd. Whether or not you buy Buford's theory, his book is a brilliant piece of reporting. Without once excusing their barbarity, Buford makes Steamin' Sammy, Lunar the Lunatic and the whole sick Dickensian crew unforgettably real. The more human they become, the more frightening they seem. "Among the Thugs" is one of the most unnerving books you will ever read.