Buzz Bissinger: A Savior for the City

More than two decades ago, Buzz Bissinger won a Pulitzer writing for the Inquirer, then published his masterpiece, Friday Night Lights. Now he’s rich, and famous. So why is he back at the Inky as a columnist — and why is he so mad?

The two took a cross-country trip in 2007. Tape recordings from their journey, Buzz says, will be the spine of the book. “I made a conscious effort to ask him questions: ‘Do you know what’s wrong with you — what brain damage is?’ He said, ‘Not really.’ ‘Do you know what it means?’ ‘I’m not really smart. I can’t go to school like Gerry’” — his twin. “We talked about sex.” A little defensively. “It’s something you have to think about. That was in Las Vegas. He told me, ‘You’re asking a lot of questions I don’t know the answer to.’” Zachary is immune to polishing, to burnishing. “It’s difficult,” says Buzz, who is, after all, a man of words, “when you love someone, never to have had a real conversation with him.” And fate dangles before him a living, breathing could-have-been. “Twins,” he sighs. “Inverted mirrors. Gerry went to Penn. He has a job teaching elementary kids. He has a wonderful partner I think he’ll marry. Three minutes between them … ”

Sometimes Buzz thinks: What if I could just sneak into Zachary’s brain and reattach the wires, like an electrician? What might he be? He lies awake at night and ponders the future: What will happen to Zach eventually? A group home? An institution? “He’s really sweet,” he says wistfully. “He tries his ass off. … ”

So Buzz wrote a book just for money. Zach needs that money. Screw you.

THE BEST DAYS, for Buzz, are the old days. These guys who pass for heroes now … “I feel no sympathy,” he says, “for Tiger Woods” — whose downfall he dissected in Vanity Fair in February. “That press conference — so staged, so rehearsed.” Anyway, athletes these days are a miserable lot: “They all screw around.” For him, the most heartfelt apology was that of — who else? — lousy dad and hubby Mickey Mantle, who, dying, warned fans: Don’t be like me.

And if Buzz’s work sometimes reads like a romance novel, if he tells a story the way it should go, well, hell, who doesn’t? If he lashes out at phoniness and waste, incompetent Councilmen and dirty cops, why shouldn’t he? If he responds to every single e-mail he gets, even the ones dripping with vituperation … if he Googles himself obsessively … if he just can’t shut up, it’s because he can’t stop picking at the scab of this failure: He can’t find the pillows to hold to Zachary’s head.

His friends know this. They bring it up hesitantly; they aren’t men at home with emotion. But they treasure Buzz as much as he does them. Seeing his byline in the Inquirer again takes them back to when they were full of piss and vinegar and working 18-hour days in grubby City Hall closets instead of tucked away within vast corporate suites. When there still was a prayer for the city, and they were in charge.