It's rare to come across a book that's original, genuinely important - and very funny too. But Them, a series of interconnected essays by one of the UK's most important alternative journalists, is all these things, and it succeeds not merely because of its unexpected timeliness (Ronson's profile of Omar Bakhri Mohammed, Britain's very own Bin Laden, was actually written four years ago) but because the author, unlike other humorous journalists, gets out and does some first-hand investigation. In Bakhri's case, this extended to engaging in a (beautifully-observed) year long association with the extremist that saw Ronson - a self-proclaimed liberal Jew of no strong religious or political convictions - become the would-be revolutionary's unpaid chauffeur and make frequent visits to his home. The strikingly off-key relationship that developed between the two is tellingly portrayed in deftly-paced vignettes:
'Next morning I sat in Omar's living room while Omar played with his baby daughter.
'"What's your daughter's name?" I asked him.
'"It is a difficult name for you to understand," said Omar.
'"Does it have an English translation?" I asked.
'"Yes," said Omar, "it translates into English as 'The Black Flag of Islam'."
'"Really?" I said. "Your daughter's name is The Black Flag of Islam?"
'"Yes," said Omar.
'"Really?" I said.
'There was a small pause.
'"You see," said Omar, "why our cultures can never integrate?"''
Ronson, indeed, succeeds remarkably well in humanising the men (and they are, with only one exception, men) he writes about, and his book, though undoubtedly hilarious, is never played principally for laughs. Instead, its humour emerges from character and situation, and it is all the more effective for it.
Ronson casts his net wide, visiting not only the US (setting for half the chapters in the book), but West Africa, Eastern Europe, Canada and Portugal too. His subjects include KKK leader Thom Robb, notorious new-age extremist David Icke (who believes that Queen Elizabeth is really a creature not dissimilar to one of the villains in 80s teleseries 'V' ), Gail Gans of New York's Anti Defamation League, and right-wing talk show host Alex Jones. Nor was his quest without danger - he finds himself tailed by sinister secret service men in the Algarve and - most spectacularly - unmasked as a Jew in the middle of a Jihad training camp. All in all, therefore, Them turns out to be an eye opening and admirable introduction to the wilder shores of contemporary belief.
There are flaws - some of the chapters fit better into the developing narrative than others (Ronson's portraits of Ian Paisley and Mr Ru Ru, an enigmatic Saudi Arabian encountered bidding at auction for Nicolai Ceaucescu's shoes, both seem out of place), and there are few laughs to be had in 'Running Through Cornfields', a compassionate profile of Rachel Weaver, one of the survivors of the siege of Ruby Ridge (an event that remains all but unknown in the UK, but which turns out to be pivotal to the development of the principal themes of this book). Most significantly, perhaps, Ronson's decision to place the strange story of the Bilderburg group front and centre in his narrative jars somewhat; by insisting that all the people he enountered share a common belief in the idea that this cabal of Western politicians secretly controls the world, the author surely suggests that the world's extremists share more, in terms of common ideology, than they really do. (The emphasis placed on Bilderburg, in fact, has more to do with the fundamental requirements of the book's narrative than it does with many extremists true ideologies.)
But these are minor quibbles when set against the reach, ambition and insight on offer in this book. Four stars for the content, and an extra one for the sheer vivacity of the writing on display.