About a decade ago, I read my first Buzz Bissinger book. I was working for the Mayor of Cincinnati and we were fresh off of a race riot and some difficult political challenges. Reality was enough of an education, but I wanted to learn more about the experiences of other urban leaders. I found “A Prayer for the City.” Since then, I’ve read many books about cities, but none of them come even close to “Prayer” in capturing what it is like to work for a big city Mayor or government. The book became a touchstone for me—I’ve read it two other times and have taught it in a class at Xavier. Ask my my favorite book and this will be one of my answers. Want to understand why your City Hall is so screwed up? Want to know why it is so difficult to get something done in urban America? Want to learn what motivates an elected official with an outsized ego? You simply should read this book.
And then you should read Buzz’s other books. “Three Nights in August” is a play in three acts. Tony LaRussa is the main character, but more than that, the melodrama of a late-season three-game series is the heart of the book. Bissinger writes sports as well as he writes politics. “Friday Night Lights,” a book I came to much too late, made Bissinger famous. It was troubling and comforting at the same time—American values at their best and their worst in just about 300 pages. It launched a movie (didn’t see it) and a TV show that may have even been more entertaining “The West Wing” or, dare I say it, “The Wire.”
I’ll admit to having skipped the book on LeBron. If it were about any other basketball player, maybe I would give it a whirl. Maybe his fans in Miami will enjoy it. LeBron is not worth my time.
I don’t know that I’ve ever come across an author that can so perfectly size up a person or a relationship or situation. I would be terrified if Bissinger showed up and said he wanted to write about me or my family. It would be like years of therapy, laid out plain between two covers. Terrifying.
So Bissinger is observant and thoughtful about what he sees. But that’s not all. He can just flat out write. He has written and tweeted about the agony of writing. That’s the hallmark of true talent. Someone who spews out words and publishes 12 books a year? That’s a job. Writing one every few years—one that enlightens and exposes? That’s a gift.
I’ve now established—through simple insistence—that Bissinger can analyze a person or situation and then can translate that observation into words. For his latest book, he’s turned inward to examine his son, his family and himself.
“Father’s Day” is a story about a cross-country trip between Buzz and his son Zach. The son is a twin—his older brother was born three minutes earlier, and though premature, Zach’s brother has no lasting effects from the early birth. The three minutes were crucial for Zach. Zach was deprived of oxygen at birth and suffered trace brain damage. He’s a savant—he can remember dates and days like a computer, but he has trouble making the mental connections that come so easy to everyone else, especially his father.
Their trip is a forced trip. Bissinger wants to connect in a new way with his son—to understand him better and maybe to find some sort of catharsis in a painful journey across country. Zach isn’t enthusiastic about the trip, but in a perfect irony, seems to understand what the trip means to his father. The subtitle is “A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son.” It is that. It is also a journey into the mind of a parent.
I could go on and recap but it is easier to tell you plainly that this is a touching and tender book. It’s written first person with brutal honesty.
Two scenes will not leave my memory easily—both are embraces. In the first, Bissinger describes an embrace in the shower with the mother of Zach and his twin Gerry. They are holding one another and then her arms loosen—just a bit. It is a moment when he realizes that the marriage will not last. It is a crushing moment, because of what it says about a marriage confronted with that kind of challenge. The next embrace is between Buzz and his son Zach. They are, for lack of a better description, bungee jumping on an amusement park ride. Buzz is holding on to his son in a tight beautiful squeeze. It is the high point of the trip for Buzz and is a healing embrace and a memory he will keep forever. I am doing his descriptions no justice. Read this book.
I want to make two more points. First, I don’t have any children. We talk about it a lot, and those are personal conversations that don’t belong on this blog. But I can confess here that this book, in a strange way, made me feel more confident that I could be a father. I’ve always been frightened of what might happen if I had a child with a similar condition. Could I be a good father? Would I be disappointed? Would I love the child differently? Those are horrible questions to consider but Bissinger does, with experience, sparing no emotion. He lays it all bare in the book. His confessions are hard to read but in a way, helpful. There is real courage present in this memoir.
My second observation: I read “A Year of Magical Thinking” earlier this year. I liked it, but there were things about it that felt awkward. Maybe it was Didion’s insistence on describing the New York elite world she inhabited. Or maybe it was that writing about the death of her husband and lover seemed to be so obvious to her. Of course she would write about his death. That’s what she does.
Bissinger cops to this too. He knew he would one day write about his son. I think he knew he would write about Zach but he also knew it would require him to confront demons and fears and truths that would scare the absolute living shit out of most anyone else. At one point in the book he describes the moment when you click up the first hill of a roller coaster. My guess is that the thought of writing this book was like that slow journey up the hill. His son was about 24 when they drove across the U.S. This wasn’t a two-week trip—it was a quarter of a century. And that’s why this book is so much more powerful than Didion’s.
Maybe I’m being too nice here. If he read this, Bissinger would surely call me a “douchejuice” (see his Twitter feed) for my ridiculous fawning. Fuck it. We are all allowed to have favorite authors and Bissinger is one of mine.
One more lump of praise, and for my readers who are writers, you’ll get this. At one point in the book, Bissinger admits to his own “negative narcissism” about “Friday Night Lights.” He says it was the story he was “destined to write.” But he also lamented that he “knew when it was published [he] would never top it no matter how hard [he] tried.” Believing that seems to haunt him. I read both books this week. And without question, he topped it.
Thanks for reading.