Previous to this I’d read two books by Buzz Bissinger, Friday Night Lights and Three Nights in August, two of the finest sports books ever. A little over a year ago I started following Bissinger on Twitter (@buzzbissinger) and I discovered that he had a much wider bandwidth than sports, which led me to this book, Father’s Day, one of his non-sports endeavors. It chronicles a cross-country road trip (Philly to LA) he took with his 24-year-old son Zach in 2007, who has brain damage from complications at birth. It was emotional stuff. I was moved from the get-go and it didn’t let up.
Because I follow Bissinger pretty closely, I feel like I know him. I don’t know him really, not like I know a friend, but I have at least a peek below the surface, so I’m familiar with his life in more than just a casual way. The first writer I remember following religiously as a kid was a Detroit-based sportswriter named Joe Falls, but I didn’t really know him. I didn’t care, plus there was no internet, so it was harder. In a similar vein though, I would look forward to what Falls had to say about the sports news of the day via his columns in The Sporting News and the Detroit News.
But wow, talk about getting to know someone, this book is a deep dive into Bissinger’s character. I still don’t know him, of course, but for me, this level of detail enriches every thing he writes and says. I trust him as a source of insight and analysis now more than ever. He’s a great American writer, make no mistake about it, so pay attention; don’t turn away, regardless of how profane or sordid it gets, or you’re going to miss important stuff.
He doesn’t sugarcoat anything; not in this book, not in any book, not in his columns, not on Twitter. Ever.
Why sugarcoat it? My son is mentally retarded. (Kindle loc 157)
Bissinger’s exploration of his relationship with Zach during the road trip is the core of this book. He’s in a unique place to sort through the emotions of having a child like Zach. First of all, Zach has a twin brother Gerry who was born without brain damage, giving Bissinger ample points of comparison. Secondly, Bissinger speaks his mind to a fault, apparently feeling no compunction to hold back regardless of what kind of light it shines on him. This combination of material, perception, and honesty leads to an amazing amount of insight into a beautiful relationship. Here’s what I’m talking about. It’s a moment when they’re in Milwaukee struggling to find a Kopp’s that Zach wants to eat at:
I call directory assistance to at least figure out the spelling and get an address. The silence separates. I am increasingly finding the entire trip pointless, a vain exercise in molding Zach into something he cannot be, fantasizing that the open road would lead to a greater sense of togetherness and understanding, that in our intimate privacy I would be able to bore into his soul and pull out a string of sparkles. I want a different son at this moment. I deserve a different son. I glance over at Zach and fill up with familiar self-hatred. I realize the cop was right: I do have an impairment, an emotional impairment, the anger of what happened, the helplessness, the forever haunt of watching my newborn son through a hospital window bloody and breakable. (Kindle Loc. 1842)
At times it’s gut-wrenching, painful, but it has to be this way so the reader can understand what a wonderful kid Zach is, and to understand what he can teach us about ourselves and others. I loved this next moment, often highlighted by Kindle readers, where Bissinger reflects on “liberating” his son from a menial job by finding him something in the mail room of a prestigious Philly law firm:
It wasn’t Zach’s liberation. It was mine alone, since Zach made no distinction about people as long as they were decent to him. He had no concept of status so he did not care about it. I had never ever heard him speak with malice or jealousy of anyone, which had to do with his always seeing the world in the literal and concrete without the spin of his own agenda. Which does raise the question of why it takes brain damage to be kind and honest and true instead of insecure and behind-the-back vindictive as so many of us are. Why is abstract thought so inherently vicious, too often interpreting events so they tout ourselves and condemn others? (Kindle loc. 802)
There’s more about Zach as they travel through Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Odessa, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles, but it has deviations along the way. At times it feels like a travel book, documenting quirky and interesting things about America. It has aspects of a call-for-action for better care of the mentally disabled. It could also be a handbook for parents of kids like Zach as they wrestle with important life choices regarding their children.
For me, I loved the stuff about the writing life – Bissinger’s writing life. Here’s how he felt passing the house he lived in while writing Friday Night Lights in Odessa, Texas:
It was in the house on Frederick where I wrote Friday Night Lights in 1989 and 1990 in a tiny second-floor study with a computer on one side and a corkboard filled with index cards on the other. No Internet. No smartphone. No Google. No distractions except those inside my own mind. Every day I put on headphones and juiced up the music of Bon Jovi and Tears for Fears and the Alan Parsons Project to stimulate and write with the head-spinning frenzy of Schroeder. It was about the work then, not the commercial prospects and the book tour. It was the most creative joy I ever felt, the only sustained time I woke up not with the dread of writing but with the exhilaration of it. Zach’s whisper of farewell is also mine. (Kindle loc. 1911)
That makes me want to read Friday Night Lights again. Bissinger spends a fair amount of time in Odessa and he’s written a separate follow-up to the book. I haven’t read the follow-up yet, but the parts in Father’s Day about Boobie Miles and the Chavez family have me anticipating it. Friday Night Lights is both the greatest football book ever and the greatest football movie ever. If you haven’t seen them and you say you like football, you’re a phony. The book tears at Bissinger though, it rips him apart:
I knew when it was published I would never top it no matter how hard I tried, and after almost twenty years, I still have not topped it. It all happened when I was thirty-five. The success opened all sorts of avenues, but it also hung over me. It was a wonderful thing to be known for something that had lasted for so long. It was a terrible thing to be known for something that had happened so long ago. It sounds like self-pity, but it wasn’t self-pity. It was the fear of being tapped out and topped out, the rest of my life a vain search. (Kindle loc. 2507)
But it’s not all dark and brooding. Bissinger can see the bright side and it carries extra weight with me when he articulates how kind and caring people can be, because you know it’s real. He marvels at how fairly and normally everyone in Odessa treats Zach.
And it strikes me as far more than ironic that it is here in Odessa, where so many people hated me and I hated certain aspects of the town with equal ferocity, that every single person we encounter treats Zach the way he should always be treated, which is just like everyone else. (Kindle loc. 2507)
The last stop in Los Angeles finds Bissinger in Hollywood, meeting up with Zach’s twin Gerry, visiting with Peter Berg (Bissinger’s cousin), and hanging out on the set of Hancock, among other things. The wrap-up is especially emotional.
This book is for anyone with a soul. I loved it.