I'm trying to picture those dads receiving copies of Buzz Bissinger's Father's Day: A Journey Into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son. After a father's day dinner with the family, after the U.S. Open golf tournament or a ball game on TV, they crack open the book and by page three they are realizing this will not be a cozy read, nor will Bissinger be the chummy narrator.
This messy, complicated, often cynical and frequently eloquent book is the story of Bissinger's attempt to learn more about his brain-damaged son during a cross-country road trip. Bissinger acknowledges from the start that he doesn't really know his son, "nor do I think I ever will."
Zach Bissinger and his twin, Gerry, were born prematurely; Gerry emerged first, and those three extra minutes made all the difference.
Now 24, Zach works in grocery store and lives in a group home with other young men with brain damage, Down Syndrome, or other disabilities - the "unwanted," Bissinger calls them. Bissinger loves his son, but for years has wrestled with the shame and anger of being "robbed." The road trip is an attempt to engage Zach's love of maps, to see old friends and revisit places Zach had lived, including Odessa, Texas, where Bissinger researched his book Friday Night Lights. But from the start, neither father nor son is sure it's a great idea. "Maybe we can fly," Zach suggests.
By page 30 readers may start to wonder about Bissinger's motives--is this trip really for and about Zach?--and his state of mind. Though he can lovingly depict Zach's quirks, his patience and kindness and humor, Bissinger is self flagellating about his own flaws. "You think about the past as you roll through the night," he writes. "With each mile you leave further behind all the suffocating trappings of daily life ... the awareness that the kind of chances you took twenty years ago when you lived light you would never take now because you have buried yourself."
Having taken my own coast-to-coast trip with my sons last year, I was drawn to the cross-country storyline, and by the story of Zach. (My sister, Maura, had Down Syndrome.)
Also, I'm a longtime fan of Bissinger's work as a journalist and a master of narrative nonfiction. Friday Night Lights was an inspiration. (And, disclosure: I'm grateful to Bissinger for providing quotes of praise for two of my books.) But in Father's Day I confronted that risk of learning too much about a hero. Bissinger seems to want it that way. In recent years he's come out as a unabashed and near pathological curmudgeon. His sporadic rants on Twitter are hilarious and frightening.
So it's no surprise that Father's Day is not a madcap memoir of a father and son adventure. It's a harsh and brooding look at Bissinger's troubled sense of self, at a man who admits that his pursuit of success ("my only true identity") and his frequent angry outbursts are fronts, behind which hide fear, pessimism, insecurity, and an aching sadness. He imagines the whispered voices: That's the father of the poor little boy who is a retard. Yet, whenever the road trip seems on the verge of collapse--Bissinger gets easily, frighteningly stressed out--Zach steps in, calms his dad, makes things right.
And Bissinger realizes: Zach has saved him from himself. Again. "He knew how to save me."
This book frustrated me at times, and I've had a hard time recommending it to people. But there were also moments where I dropped it in my lap, marveling at a sentence or scene. It's a book that sticks. And I admire the guts it took to share his son's beauty and his own dark mind on the page.
The father-son bungee jump at Six Flags near St. Louis is hilarious and wonderful; the return to the scene (and characters) of Friday Night Lights is frightening; and when the trip ends in Los Angeles, Bissinger promises readers that "there is no rose-colored ending to any of this."
Yet, he has learned at least this much: while Zach may not be "the child I wanted ... He is the most fearless man I have ever known, and the most admirable" I had always felt that way about my sister: admirably fearless. Those words apply to Bissinger, as well. This is a blunt and unflinching story and, for the parent or sibling of a disabled child, an important one.
>Watch Bissinger discuss the writing of Father's Day. ("I wanted to give voice to parents who go through what I went through in finding acceptance, which is pain, frustration, anger, feeling cheated...")
*Photo is from the author's website.