The "Friday Night Lights" bestseller describes "Father's Day," out next week, as a "love letter to my son."
Buzz Bissinger is almost as well-known for being angry as he is for being a critically acclaimed, Pulitzer Prize-winning author who captures stunning snapshots of glory and failure in flashes of brilliant prose. A caricature on the sports blog Deadspin shows sweat flying furiously from his brow, forehead in a knot, leaning back like a sling-shot ready to rocket.
Google his name together with the word asshole. You’ll get more than 25,000 results. (It’s OK, he knows it. He Googles himself all the time.)
He’s also known for having the personality of a landmine: cross him, and he’ll explode, whether you’re a faceless Twitter avatar or the most powerful man in town. Ask Ed Rendell. Our former governor and Philly mayor was the subject of Bissinger’s 1998 inside-politics book, A Prayer for the City. “I probably fared better than 99 percent of [Bissinger’s subjects],” Rendell muses, “and I still get pissed off at him constantly … It doesn’t matter if you’re his friend or foe. Buzz will get around to ripping you.”
When not taking aim at politicians, 57-year-old Bissinger can often be found infuriating sports fans, bloggers and almost everyone else. The last big incident—as of press time—was a nonapology he offered on the heels of cracking a tasteless joke about Jeremy Lin and Michael Vick opening a restaurant together. (Hint: The punch line involved dog food.)
“I said what I wrote was going to be offensive. It probably was,” Bissinger explained on CNN in February. “I don’t think it rises to the level, frankly, of calling him a gook or a kike.”
His disdain for other people is so pungent that he invented a new, now Internet-notorious term to express it: “douche juice.” Douche juice, for the uninitiated, is something a loathsome person can be, or a move such a person can make, as in “don’t be a douche juice” or “Is he going to pull a douche juice?”
But ask anyone who knows him personally, and they’ll tell you that when you peel away the layers of his swashbuckling persona, push past the prickly machismo that makes him strut around his quaint little neighborhood of Chestnut Hill sporting black leather pants and knuckles stacked with snake- and skull-shaped metal, the real Buzz Bissinger is a tender, sensitive soul. Here’s a guy who recently cried while watching We Bought A Zoo, starring Matt Damon as a widower who discovers his wife left him a note advising him to follow his heart and the money to do it. “This is so embarrassing, I can’t believe I’m telling you this,” he says. “They buy a zoo and this tiger is sick. And I really do love animals. At first, they think they can save the tiger. But they can’t. The tiger has to die.”
Does that sound strange? That a sappy, grieving-family melodrama has the power to turn Mr. Tough-Guy Writer to mush? Rendell says you better believe it. “To be honest, you don’t see it very often,” he says. “But the place it does manifest is with his children.”
Bill Marimow, the former editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer who just returned to his post there this month, agrees. “To see Buzz with his children is to realize that he is a devoted, dedicated and caring father,” says Marimow, who worked with Bissinger at the Inquirer in the 1980s. “All of that belies his public image, but I think what you see publicly is the intensity and the passion and the righteous indignation, which I think is the product of idealism.”
Lately, Bissinger’s been giving readers revealing glimpses into his private, sensitive side. Last month, Slate published a moving piece he wrote about his childhood as part of a forthcoming anthology of memoirs centered on Central Park. The same week, digital publishing company Byliner released a personal essay, After Friday Night Lights: When the Games Ended, Real Life Began. An Unlikely Love Story, a mediation on his real-life relationship with Boobie Miles, the main character in Friday Night Lights, Bissinger’s 1990 best-seller.
But it’s in his new book, Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son, out next week, that Bissinger gets the most up close and personal. Father’s Day is a memoir exploring his relationship with his son Zach.
Zach is a twin. As Bissinger wrote, Zach and his brother, Gerry, now 28 years old, were born on a suffocating August day in Philadelphia in 1983. Thirteen and a half weeks premature, Gerry weighed only one pound, 14 ounces. Zach, born weighing three ounces less, was stuck behind for three fateful minutes.
“I first saw him through the window of a hospital operation room,” writes Bissinger. “Doctors and nurses surrounded him in a tight circle. He was a bloody quiver in their hands … They held him with their arms high and outstretched almost as if they were offering him as a sacrifice to Hippocrates. They held him ever so gently as if he might break into a thousand pieces or just crumble into dust. His skin was almost translucent. His arms could snap in two like a wishbone … They knew the odds of his survival were very low.”
Gerry struggled, but escaped the trauma of his birth without significant permanent physical or mental damage. He was sent home at two and a half months, plump and happy. But with lungs less developed than Gerry’s, Zach could not pull air into his tiny body quickly enough to ward off damage to his brain. He lived in the hospital until he was almost 8 months old, then stayed tethered to oxygen machines for another year and a half at home.
“I also knew that if he survived,” writes Bissinger, “he would not remotely be the son I imagined. Which is a nicer way of saying he would not remotely be the son I wanted.”
Everyone already knows that Buzz Bissinger, usually ranting about sports or politics to someone, somewhere, is an angry guy. But it turns out that sports and politics aren’t actually the sore spot. Not really. Sports and politics are just metaphors for life.
It’s life that hurts.
“I don’t think there’s enough honesty in the world. What’s the point of writing any memoir unless you’re totally honest?” asks Bissinger, sitting across the table from Zach in a noisy bistro on a recent rainy night in his Chestnut Hill neighborhood.
“A lot of wonderful books have been written by parents who have kids with disabilities, and I think they’re reluctant to express frustration or pain or anger or disappointment because people will interpret it as saying, ‘Wow, you don’t love your kid.’ Well, that’s not true.”
PW's Summer Guide 2015