I just finished reading an advanced copy of Pulitzer Prize-winning author Buzz Bissinger's yet unpublished book titled "Father's Day." He has written two New York Times bestsellers: "Three Nights in August" and "Friday Night Lights," the latter being made into a film and eventually a TV series. As the subtitle indicates, Bissinger's book is primarily about "A Journey Into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son."
SPOILER ALERT: There may be plot information beyond this point that some readers may not want to know. If so, stop now or continue reading at your own risk.
Bissinger goes into great pains to describe the births of his twin boys, Gerry and Zach, who were born over three months premature (13 1/2 weeks) and often through literary flashbacks fills in even more details. The boys were born three minutes apart, three minutes that separated them into two completely different social, economic and academic worlds. Gerry, as Bissinger described him, was among the "Normals," while during the intervening three minutes, Zach suffered partial brain damage. Gerry is currently seeking an advanced degree at the University of Pennsylvania, with aspirations toward becoming a teacher; Zach, on the other hand, spent his childhood mostly in special schools and works in a stockroom.
In his own words, Bissinger describes his feelings for Zachary:
"It is strange to love someone so much who is still so fundamentally mysterious to you after all these years. `Strange' is a lousy word, means nothing. It is the most terrible pain of my life. As much as I try to engage Zach, figure out how to make the flower germinate because there is a seed in there, I also run from this challenge. I run out of guilt. I run because he was robbed and I feel I was robbed. I run because of shame. I am not proud to feel or say this. But I think these things, not all the time, but too many times, which only increases the cycle of my shame. This is my child. How can I look at him this way?"
Bissinger's passion to excel in his career as a writer, his two failed marriages and his obsessive guilt mentioned above have limited his opportunities to really draw closer to his now 24-year-old son, Zach, to understand how his world runs, how he copes in a world populated by "Normals" and especially how to his father can become part of Zach's world. Bissinger decides to take Zach on a 10-day road trip from their home in Pennsylvania to Los Angeles, stopping at specific locations along with way where they previously lived, schools Zach attended and especially people who Zach knew while growing up.
I will admit that when Bissinger hatched his excursion across America plan--a dad and his extraordinary son on the open highway in a minivan that should have been retired years ago, I thought, "Is that the best you can come up with?" He had already told the reader that Zach didn't handle change well, so an almost four-thousand-mile drive to LA in an old minivan really didn't seem like a good decision at the time. However, up to that point, I didn't know just how "extraordinary" Zach really was. Bissinger gives the reader a hint during the following comments:
"Zach is interested in people. It doesn't matter whether he last saw them 20 minutes ago or 20 years ago. Realizing this makes the route suddenly self-evident. We will travel across country in ten days stopping at all the places we've lived before or know well--Chicago, Milwaukee, Odessa, Texas, Los Angeles. Branson, Missouri, the evangelical answer to Las Vegas, is an add-on because I always have wondered whether the Christian right cheats at miniature golf. The real Las Vegas is on the itinerary as well."
Once the trip begins it doesn't take long before the reader begins to get glimpses of who the two main characters really are. After only a day or two Bissinger begins to let his worrisome mind spin off into chaos, while Zach stays focused on his collection of road maps, pinpointing where they are and how to get to their next destination. Bissinger often allows his frustration and anger boil over and explode into loud profanity-laden tirades. This was one of the more unseemly characteristics of this book; Bissinger's fits of cursing rage. We witness this after he becomes lost trying to leave Chicago, not realizing he could rely on his son for help. When he discovers his camera and recording equipment have been left behind at a hotel, that just adds fuel to his rage. Often his anger would spill over during an attempted conversation with Zach--"I am not at peace with my son. I am not at peace with the helpless horror of how he came into the world and what he became of it. I don't know if I ever will be and I do what I do when in conflict--take it out on someone else, too often someone I love."
It isn't until the fifth chapter that the reader finds out that Zach is not only mentally impaired but, according to Bissinger, he is also a savant! For me, this revelation places an entirely new meaning to his use of the word "extraordinary." Bissinger often refers to Zach's brain as his "hard drive" and the following quote from the book reveals the reason why:
"Zach is a savant. Embedded within him are the classic symptoms, a darkened cognitive landscape accompanied by remarkable skills in the area of calendaring--phenomenal recall of people's birthdays and the dates on which the most obscure events occurred, the capacity to see someone once and remember ten years later where and when he saw him, flawless recall of the street grids on maps, and ability to give you the day of the week for virtually any specific date in his lifetime."
Bissinger's initial expectations for the bonding he desperately wanted to take place on the road is inflated, to say the least. So it should come as no surprise to the reader that the road trip is filled with ups and downs, highs and lows, moments of pure excitement at an amusement park, conversations that lead nowhere but frustration, and the joy of Zack's amazing ability to immediately reacquaint himself with school teachers and friends he hasn't seen in over a decade. Bissinger muses, "Zach, despite his limits, has been steady and true, while I have been volatile and inconsistent. I am volatile and inconsistent. But I thought I would do better, holding my emotions in check for my son."
As I've already noted, this book contains two stories. One about a very engaging and truly extraordinary young man named Zach, and the other story is about Bissinger, a father who decades later is still wrestling with his mental and emotional anguished over the birth of this son and the damage that resulted. For much of the journey Bissinger spirals deeper into his dark and depressing life of guilt, hoping against hope that this trip will somehow change things, fix his relationship with Zach. As the journey nears an end, something special, something extraordinary begins to happen.
One of my favorite moments in this book is Bissinger's clever and crisp humor. There are definitely more than a few "laugh out loud" moments. But the part I grew to enjoy the most was the conversations between Zach and his father, especially the unusual way they are printed in the book. On the other hand, Bissinger's incessant use of profanity, as well as the repetition of his own painful memories, job and marital failures and negative experiences threatened to take over the book at times. Especially frustrating were the constant reruns of his personal disappointments over Zach's condition, as if the reader didn't feel his anguish the first or second time he visited them. I did!
I would say that I mostly enjoyed this story yet, at the same time, I also had mixed feelings about this book. It was definitely a page-turner at times and also included numerous dips into Bissinger's gloomy, brooding nature. At a couple points, and for no apparent reason, Bissinger diverts the reader's attention from the road trip to an extremely detailed description of material which seemed completely unrelated to the storyline. Though the information was mostly interesting, it seemed to do little more than derail the story's momentum. One example I can recall at this moment is when Bissinger dedicates much of an entire chapter to the discovery and historical development of the incubator, which he notes was eventually improved and used for neonatal care of premature infants. That was certainly nice to know, but what about the trip? On the other hand, there are also many fun, light and uplifting moments shared between Bissinger, his two sons and a small collection of friends and family, which in the end made this book worth reading.
I'll close with this typical and priceless conversational exchange between Buzz Bissinger and his 24-year old son, Zach:
~ I love you Zach.
~ I know.
~ How do you know?
~ You have to love me because you're my dad.
~ I love you because you're my son.
~ So let's do it again right now. We'll just go.
~ I'll think about it.
~ What do you mean think about it? Let's go. Let's go. Let's get out of here!
~ Com'on Zach. You know we'll have a blast!
~ Only if we fly.