Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son
Buzz Bissinger (2012, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
In the typical father-of-a-disabled-kid memoir, you can expect at least a hint of heroism on the part of the father. The sheer difficulty of having a child marked by his differences seems to evoke an extra measure of patience. On the other hand, there’s Buzz Bissinger, whose book is so unsparing of his own misunderstanding, disappointment, and shame that you can hardly believe he let it out the door.
Bissinger knows about being unsparing: his 1990 tour de force Friday Night Lights exposed the high school football culture of Odessa, Texas, so unflatteringly that he still has enemies there. Selling a movie and a television series on top of two million copies of a book is no small accomplishment, but Bissinger runs his life on an engine of discontent. Realizing that he peaked at thirty-five gives all that success a whiff of failure. “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.”
The twin sons born to Bissinger’s first wife in 1983 emerged thirteen weeks early, and weighed less than two pounds each. Gerry, the older by three minutes, was a success story of neonatal intensive care. Zachary, however, deprived of oxygen by those three minutes, suffered significant damage to the executive functions of his brain. As a young man, he is verbal and gregarious, but he doesn’t think abstractly, or have any sense of literature, history, or current events. His best-case employment prospect is bagging groceries.
The deficits of that brain damage come with some paradoxical assets: Zach is a savant, as it turns out, with a taste for maps and dates, and a perfect memory for some kinds of information. He can’t add one hundred and one hundred, but he can tell you what day of the week your thirtieth birthday was. He’ll never drive a car, but he can find your house on a map. He cannot tell a lie, because it doesn’t occur to him to hide what he wants.
Father’s Day is the story of a trip Buzz and Zach took across the United States, revisiting places they had lived together, seeing old friends. They go back to Milwaukee, so Zach can see his old school. From there, it’s a thousand miles south to Odessa, where they spent the year Zach and Gerry were five. It’s a place Buzz is still uncomfortable, because of his vexed relationship with some of the football players he wrote about. Boobie Miles, in particular, suffered a knee injury in his senior season that permanently derailed his life; his loss was Bissinger’s narrative gain, leaving Buzz with a haze of guilt.
One of Bissinger’s aims for this journey is to spend time trying to get inside Zach’s head, to try and understand what he understands about himself. He’s worried, naturally enough, about what will happen to Zach in the future, when the time comes that he can’t live with one of his parents. Gerry has overcome his precarious infancy, and bulled his way through school and college, with plans to become a school principal; would caring for his brother be a burden he should accept?
Two weeks on the road also give Bissinger plenty of time to come to terms with his own discomfort with the way Zach is. Twenty-five years in, he grieves the imaginary son who would have driven a car, worn Brooks Brothers jackets, and gone to college. Gerry’s success is no relief: “My pride in Gerry tamps down because of the guilt I feel for Zach. The goddamn guilt. The scrap-metal weight shackled to my ankle. It is always there.
But he also gets a chance to see that Zach gets along pretty well, after his own odd fashion. He has friends: in Odessa, of all places, “every single person we encounter treats Zach the way he should always be treated, which is just like everyone else.”Zach shows tremendous patience with his father, going genially along on this road trip, while taking steps to get his own rewards out of it; and if he’d rather lounge by the hotel pool charging soft drinks to the room than go out to dinner and a Vegas show, maybe he has the right idea. He’ll always be different, but he’ll be all right.
I started reviewing books nearly twenty years ago for Voices, the occasional newsletter of Emmanuel Church, Boston. The newsletter has evolved to a different form, but I still try to write something every month. I've shared these with friends by email, and it seems good to post them here as an archive, to see what connections may emerge. Welcome, and happy reading!