Narrative legend Buzz Bissinger, whose books include A Prayer for the City and the No. 1 New York Times best-seller Friday Night Lights, visited his alma mater the Nieman Foundation last week for a long talk with curator Ann Marie Lipinski and the year’s outgoing class. Because this is Bissinger, the conversation was at times salty. It was at times uncomfortable. It was bittersweet and it was honest. “As a journalist, all I ever do is try to get people to be honest about themselves and open up,” he said. “I felt, well if I’m gonna turn the light on myself, I have to be honest. I think there’s purity in honesty. I think that’s where you learn.”
He was talking about his new book, Father’s Day, a wrenching memoir about a cross-country driving trip with one of his twin sons, Zach, a 24-year-old savant with the comprehension skills of a 9-year-old. Check back tomorrow for that chat, and to hear Bissinger read a particularly moving passage from the book, which was published last week by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
In the meantime, here’s an excerpt, from Father’s Day:
We wake up. We dress. We eat the free continental breakfast out of fear of the desk clerk. Zach finds a computer in the lobby and checks his e-mail. His roster of contacts is impressive and ever-expanding. It is one of the reasons he compulsively collects business cards, to find e-mail addresses. If that doesn’t work, he takes to the Internet with relentlessness. He has taught himself to search exhaustively, part of his intrinsic process, as Oliver Sacks has said, to make himself whole and connected to the universe of people he likes. Because of his prodigious memory he often knows more about their lives than they do themselves. Waiting for the train one day, Zach saw a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer he had befriended. He asked him why he was there: it was his day off. Zach was right. The reporter went home.
Some e-mail exchanges continue for months or longer, until Zach cuts them off abruptly and without warning. A few gently ask if I can find out what happened, maybe get them reinstated. I feel like the father of the maitre d’ at a hot new restaurant, whom friends ask for reservations because of my perceived pull. I have none.
He doesn’t even let me read what he writes. I’ve only seen a small sampling that a few of his correspondents occasionally share with me. He writes in caps and always asks questions. Punctuation is optional.
DEAR ART WHEN CAN WE GO FLYING IN YOUR PLAN AGAIN HAVE YOU EVER BEEN UP TO NANTUCKET MEMORIAL AIRPORT OR TO THE NEW BEDFORD MASS AIRPORT OR TO THE HYANNIS AIRPORT
DEAR STEVE WHAT COLOR SHIRT PANTS SHOES TIE ARE YOU WEARING TODAY AND IM GOOD BY THE WAY AND WHEN ARE YOU TRAVELING NEXT FOR WORK AND WHO HAVE YOU TALKED TO FROM THE INQUIRER THESE DAYS AND DO YOU EVER TALK TO VERNON LOEB OR BILL MARIMOW OR MIKE LEARY OR PAUL MOORE OR TO JONATHAN NEUMANN
DEAR KEVIN HAPPY HAPPY BIRTHDAY AND BEST WISHES LOVE ZACH WHAT DID YOU GET FOR YOUR BIRTHDAY AND WHAT ARE YOU DOING FOR YOUR BIRTHDAY DINNER TONIGHT.
I try to take a peek at his current roster. He shuts down the computer.
—How come you never let me look at your e-mails?
—I don’t know because I don’t.
—You like to keep them private?
—They should be private. You’re an adult now.
—Are you happy?
—Are you sad?
—Did you have any dreams last night?
—Do you ever dream?
—Are you having a good time?
We find the minivan in the parking lot and climb inside. I still feel slightly blurry from driving the night before but I am determined to be upbeat.
—Ready for takeoff, captain.
—Yeah where are we going?
—Chicago, Chicago, a helluva town, a helluva town.
I repeat the chorus. I repeat it again, hoping in vain that Zach will sing along with me, just as I am hoping in vain that I will rejuvenate. I can’t get out of the parking lot. I take lefts when I should be taking rights. Arrows only take me in circles. We have not driven one one-hundredth of a mile yet today.
—WHAT THE FUCK IS THIS? HOW THE FUCK DO YOU GET OUT OF HERE?
—There’s an entrance over here yeah yeah here’s the entrance.
Zach guides me like a Good Samaritan helping a blind man cross the street.
—Sorry, Zach. I shouldn’t have gotten mad like that.
—I love you, Zach.
—I did good didn’t I Dad I helped you get out because the parking lot was you know you know Dad it was kind of hard to get out of.
—That’s because your father’s a moron.
Up ahead a sign proclaims WELCOME TO OHIO! An opportunity to make amends. I will yell the word Ohio with the ending slightly varied so Zach can correct me. We started playing this game sixteen years ago when he was eight, much like the rite of cuddies. He always finds it an invigorating dose of concreteness and reacts with uproarious laughter. His giggles are like hiccups at first, intermittent and inconsistent, then they start peeling off in rolls if I seize on a word that particularly strikes him. I have tired of this, just like I have tired of cuddies, but I feel repentance is necessary for the parking lot crackup. I must do a better job of controlling emotions.
Let the games begin:
—WELCOME TO OHIEE!
He gleefully responds:
—WELCOME TO OHIO!
Now it’s war.
Zach voice goes soft. But he persists.
—It’s Ohio, not Ohiee.
—I know, Zach.
—It’s Ohio not Ohiee.
—What did I just say? That’s enough!
His laughter stops. I go quiet with my own duplicity. I am the one who always starts the game and then turns it off because I can no longer stand it because of the feeling of perpetual stasis. Then the guilt.
—You’re right. It is Ohio.
—Yes, Zach, Ohio.
The fun has been drained out of the minivan. About seventy-five miles outside of Cleveland, Zach pulls out the Rand McNally road atlas and turns to page 91. He traces the blue line of the Ohio Turnpike in the northern tier of the state with his forefinger. The finger moves past the old iron and coal port of Ashtabula, and the Geneva-on-the-Lake amusement park and bumper boats and batting cages, and Conneaut with the four covered bridges that are always part of the Ashtabula County Covered Bridge Festival each fall. He notes that we are closer to Akron than we are to Cleveland. The car floods with nothingness.
I slip a disc into the CD player: Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” She sings in a melancholic, tuneless voice, the music simple except for some odd circuslike refrain in the middle with noxious calliopes. It is the kind of song that the Sex Pistols would have covered with more cheer. Or Frank Sinatra in some detached croon as destructive as his rendition of “MacArthur Park.” Here comes the famous refrain.
Is that all there is / If that’s all there is my friends …
—What does it mean to you, Zach?
—When she says that’s all there is my friend.
I rarely ask Zach to give his interpretation of something. It makes him nervous. His hard drive stores information only. But I vowed on this trip to probe Zach’s mind, find what is there, what is not there, and what never can be. He considers the question. He starts to answer. He stops. He answers.
—That’s life I guess.
For the first time I wonder if he understands on some level what he and I have been through to get here. His birth and near death, my two divorces and broken engagement. All our moving around. An ongoing earthquake of adjustment for somebody who craves stability and hates change.
That’s life I guess.
I guess it is.
Excerpted from Father’s Day: A Journey Into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son by Buzz Bissinger. Copyright © 2012 by H. G. Bissinger. Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.