The "Friday Night Lights" bestseller describes "Father's Day," out next week, as a "love letter to my son."
As Bissinger writes in Father’s Day, Zach maintains a robust correspondence with a countless list of friends and co-workers, many of whom he thanks in the book’s acknowledgements, which he dictated to his father. Sometimes, Zach will abruptly drop one of his digital pen pals without explanation and, hurt, the rejected correspondent will turn to Buzz for an explanation. But Buzz doesn’t know what to say. Like the calendaring or his sudden desire for a snazzy pocket square to tuck into his blazer pocket or the way he wryly busts Buzz’s balls, it’s just one of the many things about Zach that Buzz doesn’t fully understand.
It’s this unknowing that is the wellspring of Bissinger’s palpable sorrow. “It is strange to love someone so much who is still so fundamentally mysterious to you after all these years,” he writes. “‘Strange’ is a lousy word, meaning nothing. It is the most terrible pain of my life.”
Bissinger writes about his fantasies of crawling inside Zach’s brain, re-attaching wires to make connections that will spark. Though he has dedicated his life to figuring out how Zach’s brain works so that he can develop the best learning strategies for him, he admits the pressure sometimes makes him, like on that day the twins were born, want to run away.
“I run out of guilt. I run because he was robbed and I feel I was robbed. I run because of my shame. I am not proud to feel or say this. But I think these things, not all the time, but too many times, which only increases the cycle of my shame.”
In the last 10 years, Bissinger had been seeing Zach, who lives with his mother in New Jersey, mostly on weekends. Enough of the weekend routine, he thought. They needed to bond. He needed to get as close to crawling inside Zach’s brain as possible. They needed, he decided, a great American road trip.
“I love being on the road,” says Bissinger. “You’re in a car driving through New Mexico and Arizona, you’re spending a lot of time talking to each other whether you like it or not.”
In July 2007, they set out on what Bissinger admitted was the “worst possible path” for a two-week cross-country road trip. The itinerary was chosen for Zach, who wanted to see cities he remembers, while Bissinger loathes revisiting the past. Zach couldn’t wait to get to Odessa, Texas, the setting of Friday Night Lights, where he fondly recalls attending Permian Panther football games as a 5-year-old in pajamas and red cowboy boots. Bissinger, on the other hand, had to cancel scheduled appearances under threat of physical attack courtesy of townies who were bitter that he portrayed them as racists. (For a time, locals wore T-shirts emblazoned with “Buzz off, Bissinger.”) Buzz would just as soon not think about Hollywood, either, where he suffered a devastating professional failure when he didn’t cut the mustard as a screenwriter for NYPD Blue.
Bissinger didn’t need to get out of the car to drive into the dark heart of his shortcomings as both father and a son.
“All of my life, I had yearned for conversation with my son,” writes Bissinger, who then takes the opportunity of long, flat heartland roads to launch a series of charm offensives on Zach, drilling him on his thoughts on life and sex. Together, they suffer the paradox of intimacy everywhere: Like a Chinese finger-trap, the harder Bissinger struggles to force a bonding breakthrough, the tighter they are bound to the distance between them. Everything is conflict, and it is tiring, and Bissinger feels old and sees mirrors and parallels everywhere.
Recalling the day the twins were born brings him back to the hospital when his own father lay dying as Bissinger watched a Seinfeld rerun down the hall. Then there’s Gerry, a teacher pursuing a Ph.D who lives with his girlfriend in the city. Bissinger calls him an inverted mirror for Zach, who will in some ways remain perpetually behind his big brother, waiting in the dark to emerge whole.
Buzz Bissinger has built a distinguished career out of re-assembling the shards of broken dreams.
In Friday Night Lights, Bissinger’s focus was on James “Boobie” Miles, the star quarterback of the Permian Panthers, the high school football team that was poised to win the Texas state championship in a town that lived and breathed the game. But Boobie Miles was sidelined after suffering a freak accident during the pre-season scrimmage and he never made it onto the field.
The tragedy of Miles’ life was, frankly, Bissinger’s gain: The fallout that ensued gave the author fodder for a best-selling book that sold about 2 million copies and was translated into a film and TV series. And the paradigm for classic Bissinger stories, dredging the gulf between expectation and reality, was set.
In A Prayer for the City, the broken dream was Philadelphia. Bissinger profiled Ed Rendell in his first term as mayor of the city where the American dream was born—as it was succumbing to high crime rates, widespread poverty, failing schools and budget deficit.
(Let’s just skip over Shooting Stars, co-written with basketball player LeBron James. Bissinger openly refers to the book as a “turdasaurus” and admits he wrote it for the money to sack away for Zach’s future.)
While chasing all these books, Vanity Fair articles and columns at the Daily Beast, Bissinger kept returning to the idea of Father’s Day.
“It’s a story that in one shape or form or another I thought about telling for almost 20 years,” he says. Some delays were practical, about contracts and money and time. Others were not.
Bissinger struggled with the ethics of what was fair to reveal about his son. “If he reads the book, there are many parts of it he won’t understand. I knew that going in, and I grappled a lot with how much to expose not only about him, but about my feelings toward him.”
He also wondered if readers would really care about his personal life.
“It’s so far out of my wheelhouse,” says Bissinger. “People are so used to me writing about sports and narrative nonfiction. Are people going to respond to it, or are people going to say, ‘What is this? Why is he doing this?’”
First Person Arts Podcast: Passing
Savage Love: About Ashley Madison...
First Person Arts Podcast: I Spy