Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son

By Buzz Bissinger

(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 , 256 pages)

Who is this author?

You may never have read anything by Buzz Bissinger, but it’s quite likely you’ve seen the TV version of one of his outstanding works of reportage: “Friday Night Lights,” which also was adapted as a 2004 movie. Bissinger is a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter (as part of a Philadelphia Inquirer team exposing city court corruption) and has written several notable books. “Friday Night Lights,” about the outsize role high-school football plays in a racially and economically divided Texas town, brilliantly shows how an obsession with sports can be a dangerous thing. “3 Nights in August” chronicled a baseball series between the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals, whose manager, Tony La Russa, Bissinger had befriended.

In addition to his books, Bissinger is known for his sharp and detailed magazine reporting. He is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and a sports columnist for The Daily Beast and has written for The New York Times, The New Republic and Time.

What is this book about?

Bissinger is at his best when he can immerse himself in the life of his subject, and in “Father’s Day,” he didn’t have to go far to do so. This is no sentimental father-and-son memoir: it is the heartbreakingly honest account of how the author came to finally understand, appreciate and celebrate his 24-year-old son Zach, a prematurely born twin who suffered brain damage while his brother Gerry went on to develop normally. Zach functions in the world, at best, like a 9-year-old. He can read but not always understand the words; can work, but only as a supermarket bagger. Yet he makes the best of his limited world, and he is an admirable man. The book tells how Bissinger, who admits to often emotionally distancing himself from Zach, takes his son on a cross-country trip that lets the young man explore life outside his strict and comforting routine, while the father, in turn, explores his son’s world. In the end, it is Bissinger who learns the most, and he shares this painfully gained knowledge with his readers.

Why you’ll like it:

Bissinger writes eloquently without ever being fussy in style. The book does two things very well: it invites us into the life of someone we might otherwise turn away from and thereby miss knowing a fascinating person; and it also gives us a frank appraisal of how having a damaged child can affect a father in difficult-to-admit ways.

Let’s let Bissinger explain why he wrote the book, which also explains why we should read it:

“I am meeting Zach at Brooks Brothers in the sodden, sullen aftermath of Christmas. He has just come from work at the supermarket where he has bagged groceries for four hours with one fifteen-minute break. I cannot imagine my son doing such work at the age of twenty-four. It shames me to think of him placing sweat-drenched jugs of milk into their proper place and learning initially, with the extensive help of a job coach, that the eggs must be placed separately in double plastic bags. He has been doing the same job for four years, and he will do the same job for the rest of his life. My son’s professional destiny is paper or plastic.

“…. His IQ, which has been measured far too many times, is about 70, with verbal scores in the normal range of 90, but with performance skills of about 50. I love my son deeply, but I do not feel I know him nor do I think I ever will. His mind is not simple. It is limited to a degree that profoundly frustrates me, but it is also inexplicably wondrous at certain moments. I have dedicated my life trying to fathom its inner workings.

“…. 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?

Because I do. Because I think we all do when confronted with difference, reality versus expectation never at peace or even truce.”

What others are saying:

Publishers Weekly says:

“…Although Zach never recovered from the brain injuries caused by lack of oxygen, he grew into a lovable man who loves people and who is a savant who memorizes people’s birthdays, features of maps, but who also loves the familiar and the routine structure of his life. ….In this wrenchingly honest road tale, Bissinger searches desperately to discover who his son really is as well as to come to terms with his own feelings of inadequacy and insecurity as a parent. …In the end, he movingly fears for Zach’s future and still sheds a tear for him every day, and he touchingly concludes that Zach is the most fearless man he has ever known, and the most admirable.”

“It’s a barely guided tour through Mr. Bissinger’s own roiling anxiety, his depression, his narcissism and his profound insecurity, not to mention what he sees as his failings as a man, as a father, as a son and as a writer…”Father’s Day” is riveting and a bit frightening…it’s a brutal and vivid [book], the work of a writer with an unflinching gift for honesty, and impossible to put down. I read it in two short gulps, occasionally through the cracks in my fingers.” says Dwight Garner in The New York Times.

“Bissinger has the great writer’s gift of showing us we are not alone. Here he explores the religion all parents share: that our children’s essential goodness will somehow grant them safe passage through a rough world. What a book! Every parent should read it,” says TV host and author Chris Matthews.

“Buzz Bissinger has given completely of himself in this moving book about his son Zach, who was born too small, too soon. There is the father’s disappointment and guilt, his confusion and frustration, his wonder and love. That Zach has a twin brother, who grew up unscathed, and that Zach’s mind is as divided as his father’s emotions, makes the story all that more compelling. “Father’s Day” is wonderfully, achingly written, with all the doubt that tells you how truthful it is,” says author Frank Deford.

When is it available?

You can borrow it now from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or the Blue Hills branch.

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