A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 256 pp., $26
It took author Buzz Bissinger four years to write "Father's Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son," which details his 10-day cross-country road trip with his "extraordinary son" Zach. Brain-damaged from a premature birth, at 24 Zach is known for his infatuation with maps and an uncanny knack for instantly matching a random date with its day of the week.
The book, Bissinger confesses at the end, "was difficult and painful" to write. Much more so than he anticipated when they hit the road in 2007. Bissinger thought it would take another year to finish the manuscript, but the pain of the process lengthened the calendar, as did the perhaps subconscious shift of focus from Zach, an utterly charming person in his father's portrayal, to Bissinger himself.
It is not a flattering self-portrait, and that's the biggest problem with what is a frank yet disquieting book. "Father's Day" isn't compelling so much as it's revelatory about Bissinger's struggle to reconcile the son he thought he deserved with the one he has. It's a human reaction to uncontrollable events, but by the end, if you had to choose a cross-country traveling companion, you'd go for the son, with all his mental deficiencies, over the narrating father with his rages and insecurities.
Bissinger's earlier work includes sharing a Pulitzer Prize in investigative journalism for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the book, "Friday Night Lights," about an Odessa, Texas, high school football team that was turned into a movie and TV series (Odessa gets a poignant revisit in "Father's Day"). Bissinger has a sharp eye and a strong voice, and he has made a career of compelling narratives. He can write nonfiction with the best of them.
He brings those skills to bear on himself in his new book with brutal honesty, which, in an awkward seesaw, can leave the reader cold.
The book is a bit contrived. Bissinger knew from the start of the trip he would be writing the book (he recorded all the conversations with his son). The whole point of the trip, Bissinger writes, was to give him a chance to fill a gap in dramatic/romantic fashion: "All my life I had yearned for a conversation with my son. A conversation making him aware of his own reality. I had never told him what had happened when he was born. I never mentioned the term brain damage. I never mentioned the reason he went to special schools."
A parent reading this can't help but think, why not? The son is an adult with a twin brother working on a master's degree at Penn, and you have yet to explain to him why he is so different? And you couldn't have just sat on the couch instead of dragging cross-country a young man discomforted by ruptures in the daily routines of his life?
And yes, Bissinger feels unsettled about that too. So this is a book of admissions and confessions, therapy of a sort, one hopes, for a man in persistent emotional pain over the birth complications that left his son with the mental capacity of a 9-year-old. While proud that Zach worked for a while as an errand boy for a top Philadelphia law firm, "it shames me to think" of Zach at his job bagging groceries, Bissinger writes. "My son's professional destiny is paper or plastic."
Never mind that Zach seems to enjoy his work, his colleagues and the people he meets and talks with. Bissinger wants to understand his son's inner life, but for all of his love for him — and the love is palpable — he doesn't seem to have reached an emotional equilibrium about his son's world. Or matured enough to not worry about whether others think less of him because of his son's disabilities.
"As much as I try to engage Zach, figure out how to make the flower germinate because there is a seed, I also run. I run out of guilt. I run because he was robbed and I feel I was robbed. I run because of my 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 has his own passel of problems, and he takes a "morning cocktail" of four drugs to balance out his "anxiety and depression and the downside of mild bipolarity." His relationship with his parents weighs on the narrative too — he relates one particularly jarring moment when his father was near death and Bissinger, in what he recognizes as emotional deflection, "acted in ways that were uncharacteristic and despicable, computing inheritance and IRA accounts and how much I would end up with. I am ashamed to this day."
Yet his reaction doesn't feel all that out of character with the Bissinger we come to know in these pages. Zach, on the other hand, has a charming engagement with the world, loves his father and extended family, is eager to please, finds comfort in routines and delivers the occasional hilarious one-liner.
While "Father's Day" offers an unblinking look into the soul of a tortured man, less Buzz and more Zach would have made it a more satisfying book to read.