Bouncers tell all

Tales from behind the velvet rope
By JAMES PARKER  |  August 22, 2007

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Oxbow, "Down a Stair Backwards"

Bounced! Three perspectives on working as a bouncer.

A young man of my acquaintance, a callow pube of a London club-goer, got himself bounced not long ago from an establishment on the King’s Road. Nothing remarkable there: he’s always getting thrown out of places, his manners being of the sort that seem to require continuous correction by the cosmos. The remarkable thing was what happened next. A bantamweight with no fighting skills whatsoever, he stared up at the spiffy Goliath who had just ejected him, trailed a limp hand across the man’s tuxedo’d pectorals, and drawled, “Pretty nice jacket, man — you wouldn’t want me to fuck it up for you, now, would you?” And then he went home. In one piece.

That’s the thing about bouncers: for all their density and predictability, their routine enforcements and worn-smooth one-liners, they are not quite of this world. Reality tilts around them. Disproportions occur. Tiny bouncers are to be feared, while extra-large ones — presenting as they do the affronting spectacle of indomitability — find themselves constantly challenged by smaller men. In ethnographic terms, the bouncer is the big daddy of the liminal realm, the place of thresholds, through which participants in the rite are conducted — moved along, if you like — as they pass from one state of being to another. Jittery clubbers at the door, agitating for entry; the gyre of an out-of-control pit, slewing toward carnage; a drugged or boozed patron sprouting invisible tusks of hostility; the bouncer is there, filling the space, negotiating the transition. Not always skillfully, and not always nicely, but then heavy-handedness is part of his job description. To make something bounce, you have to smack it from time to time.

What, though, of his interior life? Is there an interior life? Or will we find, if we go behind that gum-chewing grimace, only a flickery Terminator-world of threat assessment, one-word commands, and thermal readings of girls’ asses? This is an area not much explored. We have Rowdy Herrington’s Road House (1989), of course: a movie, it turns out, that all bouncers love — a totemic item of bouncer culture. Patrick Swayze, playing the taut minimalist Dalton, struts lethally about under his moussed mantle of ’80s hair. Bullies leer at him and are flattened — in some cases killed. No chucker-out of drunks can watch these scenes without a hot surge of pride. At rest up in his loft, Dalton frowns austerely over a Jim Harrison novel and beds Kelly Lynch: bouncing in its epic aspect.

More nuanced, Martin Amis’s 1996 short story “State of England” gave us Big Mal, “five-feet-nine in all directions,” a pensive lump caught between two women and reconsidering his vocation: “Bouncing was a mop-up operation made necessary by faulty bouncing. The best bouncers never did any bouncing. Only bad bouncers bounced.”

But Herrington and Amis are among the very few who have illuminated the bouncer’s plight. Until now. Thanks to a mini-wave of bouncer/brawler memoirs, we are at last being made privy to the many moods of bouncing. Welcome, gentle reader, to Bouncer Lit.

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Related: You're Doing It Wrong: Hitting the Club, Boston’s Biggest Bouncers, Music Seen: Dead of Winter, More more >
  Topics: Books , Entertainment, Media, Jim Harrison,  More more >
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