I had never read a Buzz Bissinger book before I began his new memoir, Father’s Day: A Journey into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son, but nothing could have prepared me for the detonation of its opening paragraph. Zach “has just come from work at the supermarket where he has bagged groceries for four hours with one fifteen-minute break,” Bissinger writes. “It shames me to think of him placing sweat-drenched jugs of milk into their proper place and learning, with the extensive help of a job coach, that the eggs must be placed separately in double plastic bags. . . . My son’s professional destiny is paper or plastic.”
I hadn’t expected a soft, gauzy “journey” from the author of Friday Night Lights, but this was more of a dizzying free fall into a pit of shame, anger, and despair. And things only get more intense from here. The three minutes that separated the birth of Buzz’s twins, Zach and Gerry, has resulted in a chasm between their life paths: Gerry is in graduate school at Penn studying to become a teacher; Zach will never go to college or live independently. Bissinger does more than refuse easy platitudes or misty romanticism about the gifts of disability; he dismisses hope, unmasks euphemism, and punctures cliche with a brutal force: “Why sugarcoat it? My son is mentally retarded. Because of three fucking minutes”. For “a father awash in ambition”, his son’s bagging groceries is the ultimate humiliation; for a man who “wanted bragging rights to my son”, having that son attend special schools populated by “broken children” and “freaks” is a deep source of shame.
Most of all Buzz hates the sense that there will never be progress, growth, or breakthrough, that Zach is stuck in a dead-end job and a small life, that he and Zach are locked into the same tiresome ways of relating to each other (he repeatedly compares his interactions with Zach to Waiting for Godot) and declares: “We are like the film Groundhog Day except nothing ever changes”). And so in part to break the “feeling of perpetual stasis”, Buzz decides to take his son on a ten day road trip across America. They will visit schools Zach attended, places Zach lived, and as many amusement parks (Zach’s special passion) as possible.
But the proposed terms of the road-relationship are both pointed and peculiar. “I vowed on this trip,” Buzz tells us, “to probe his mind, find what is there, what is not there, and what never can be”. He will try “to pry Zach open”. True to plan, Buzz is mercilessly direct and dissecting of Zach’s inner states: “do you know what brain damage is? Do you know your brain is not a little right?”.
As the inquisition continues, at often deeply uncomfortable length and invasiveness, the reader’s questions become insistent in response: what does Buzz want? What does Buzz need in this exchange? In comparison to Zach’s obvious needs, Buzz’s neediness and his insistent probing as an aggressive and wildly off-key form of communication—seem self-indulgent.
But a large point of the book is that Buzz is aware of this pattern. The book is about the weakness of this style of knowing his son, a style which is deeply associated with his identity as a man, as a thinker, and as a writer. When Buzz declares that he despises his own “negative narcissism and the constant fear of failure, the unquenchable neediness”, he is describing the very qualities that we as readers are likely to find repellent. He shares our horror, and his disgust turns inward: the same analytical gaze which probed Zach now probes the father.
The question that this reversal of focus brings to the surface is the point on which the book turns: to what extent Zach will be accommodated to his father’s need for understanding. Escaping this desire for mastery and control will require an abandoning of the author’s hyper-masculine (one almost wants to say “literary”) way of relating. He will need to replace (or at least to complement) the standards of “intellect and riches and status” with the rediscovery of “what was vital, fatherhood, the best part of me”.
This transformation is the true journey in the book, from a need to possess Zach like a text or a trophy to an ability to allow him to be his own man. And in this part of the story it is Zach rather than Buzz who dominates.
As the book and the road-trip progress, we discover that Zach’s mind is not only limited but also gifted: he is, in fact, a savant with an extraordinary memory and a remarkable facility with maps. He is also and more importantly gifted in less measurable or culturally validated ways: he is “kind and honest and true,” “his warmth . . . a balm to the most savage soul.”
Ultimately, much like Amy Chua’s Tiger Mother, Father’s Day contains within itself its author’s own come-uppance as the parent is humbled and enlightened by the child. Zach, in his gentle, kind way, stands up for himself, resists his father’s intrusions, and asserts himself in small but meaningful “statement[s] of his individuality and independence”. He signs his own name, he refuses toothpaste, goes off to his own room, buys a belt, asks to stay overnight with friends. Buzz comes to see what we have seen: “I am boring into my son like a lab rat by asking him intimate questions that make him sad or confused or nervous”. He can now appreciate the solid logic of Zach’s “idiosyncratic” world view, respect the integrity of Zach’s “interior life”, and accept the ineffability of Zach’s being. An exhilarating joint bungee jump and Zach’s “I love you Dad we had a fun trip” are simple gifts to be treasured.
The book’s last few pages had me weeping- overpowering in their naked tenderness and fervent affirmations- as Buzz expresses in soaring prose the radical shift in priorities being a father has brought about and declares his son “the most fearless man I have ever known, and the most admirable.” Fearless himself in his breathtaking honesty and admirable in his ardent love for his child, Buzz writes like Zach who gave the most touching eulogy at his grandmother’s funeral “in unfiltered words straight from the heart”. If, as Kafka once said, “writing means revealing oneself to excess; that utmost of self-revelation and surrender,” then Bissinger’s memoir is the quintessence of writing: an utmost act of self-revelation and surrender.
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy, which has just been published in paperback by Harper Perennial.
This review originally appeared in the May 13th 2012 issue of the Chicago Tribune.