Buzz Bissinger can be a major lout. It’s a funny thing to say about the best writer in the city, but few who know him would disagree. It’s doubtful even he’d object. I once criticized something he wrote for the Daily News that struck me as beneath his formidable talent. He shot me an email that said: “ … what you wrote was a gratuitous cheap shot that you tried to mitigate with faint praise. Maybe the best writer in the city? Gee thanks. Such a big honor.”
Bissinger pokes his finger in the eyes of fans and foes to provoke and needle. He is most agitating on Twitter, where he can sound like a cross between Lenny Bruce and Howard Eskin on crack. On the Phillies: “… front office now like Eagles: lie, lie, lie. Utley on track? For what? next vacancy at nursing home?” When a Twitter follower asks when he’ll make it to St. Louis to promote his new book, he tweets back: “ … will put dates out when I know them. Then we can sit in circle do douchejuice chant.”
Bissinger’s own douchiness can make you forget all he has accomplished. Friday Night Lights, his opus about high-school football in Texas, sold two million copies. A Prayer for the City, which chronicled Ed Rendell’s efforts to save the city, remains the last word on Philadelphia politics. He’s written books on LeBron James and Tony LaRussa. He’s won a Pulitzer. When he writes about Philadelphia for a national audience, as in his recent New York Times article on machinations at our daily newspapers, it becomes an instant must-read.
In Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son, out this month, Bissinger writes about his son Zach, born 13 and a half weeks premature and three critical minutes after his brother, Gerry. Gerry was fine; Zach, not really. “Why sugarcoat it?” writes Bissinger early on in Father’s Day. “My son is mentally retarded.”
Determined to forge a deeper relationship with Zach, Bissinger plans a 2007 father-son adventure: a cross-country road trip with stops at all the places they’ve lived during Zach’s 24 years. That means lots of car time—lots of Buzz trying to figure out Zach, and lots of Zach looking at maps, his default time-killer. Zach responds to his father’s probing questions with a series of one-word answers. You can hardly blame him.
At times, the car trip makes Buzz edgy. And when Buzz gets edgy, good vibes wilt, his own most of all. He falls into black spells and beats himself senseless for his personal shortcomings, which he invariably blames on misplaced ambition and fear of failure.
Still, with Buzz at the wheel, the ride never grows wearisome. His personal peccadilloes are many, and when not thinking about what will become of Zach, he dissects each one. As they near L.A., the memory of his time spent there as a writer for NYPD Blue sends him spiraling downward.
Father’s Day is Bissinger’s memoir, or as close as he’ll probably get to writing one, though he’ll want to clock me for saying so. This is not to say he doesn’t keep a close eye on Zach. He does. He always will.
By trip’s end, Bissinger discovers a kindness and strength of character in his son. It’s unique, a kind of humanity not found in “normals.” We see it too. How ’bout that? Writing so honest that it reveals goodness and touches us deeply. And just when we’d started to think the prickly bastard couldn’t find the sweet spot anymore.