Self-described "humorous journalist" and documentarian Jon Ronson shares David Sedaris' skill for sketching funny yet humane portraits of colorful misfits and documentarian Nick Broomfield's gift for playing the guileless innocent. Ronson also shares Broomfield's talent for giving con men and other rogues enough rope to hang themselves many times over. Ronson puts that skill to good use throughout Them, his funny and fearless look at extremism in its many forms. Of course, the topic couldn't be more timely, and it's not surprising that the events of Sept. 11 hang heavily over the book. This is particularly true of its alternately uproarious and chilling first chapter, which recounts Ronson's experiences as the unlikely sidekick of Omar Bakri Mohammed, a surprisingly mischievous "Islamic Warrior" whose hatred of Western society doesn't preclude collecting jihad money in comically oversized Coca-Cola bottles. Like nearly all the extremists documented in Them, Mohammed—widely considered to be Osama bin Laden's man in London—initially comes across as a hapless, comically non-threatening figure, until it becomes apparent that his actions could have traumatic real-world consequences. Nearly everyone in Them registers as a bit of a kook, from David Icke, a former British television personality convinced that the world is ruled by 12-foot-tall, blood-drinking, child-molesting lizards, to a neurotic Ku Klux Klan leader who scandalizes the Klan by kissing a black baby. But rather than simply deriving cheap laughs from his subjects' eccentricities, Ronson is serious about the root causes that breed extremism, which helps make Them more than just a snarky exercise in clever slumming. The author obviously doesn't share most of his subjects' beliefs, but he's empathetic to an almost troubling degree. At the book's darkest point, Ronson even tries on a Klansman's hood; it doesn't take a card-carrying member of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League to perceive aspects of self-loathing in a Jewish journalist who buddies up with Klansmen but is unremittingly harsh toward the Jewish establishment. To its credit, however, Them is more concerned with raising important questions than providing concrete answers. And while the truth may still be out there at the end of the book, Ronson at least comes away from his journey into the looking-glass world of extremists with a funny, smart, sometimes terrifying look at life on and beyond the fringe.
More from The A.V. Club