In this nonfiction personal narrative, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Buzz Bissinger writes that in 2001, after a failed attempt as a Hollywood screenwriter, he was lying naked on a hotel carpet in fear, holding his knees to his chest and thinking, “Whatever words I had within me, and we all have a finite amount, had run out.”
For those who have read Bissinger’s outspoken column in The Daily Beast or follow him on Twitter, it might be hard to believe he could run out of words. This humbling confession is one of many honest moments Bissinger shares in Father’s Day: A Journey Into the Mind of My Extraordinary Son.
Titled appropriately after his son, Zach, the first chapter introduces his son as a lovable, simple 24-year-old man who will always be a grocery bagger. It is also the first of many times Bissinger will refer to the shame and subsequent guilt he feels for having a son born with brain damage.
Through a series of IQ and personality tests, doctors were unable to give Bissinger a one-word catchall for his son’s condition, though many tried: autism, Tourette’s syndrome, and mini-seizures were just a few suggested. Bissinger confesses he’s saved all these pieces of partial diagnoses, hoping to find a “cure” to make his son “normal.”
In an attempt to better understand his son, Bissinger decides he will take Zach on an unconventional westward journey. Unlike most family road trips fettered to national landmarks and museums, Father’s Day takes a chronological journey through Zach’s “literal landscape”: Chicago, Milwaukee, Odessa, and Los Angeles. The stops Bissinger has chosen hold personal significance for Zach; they are cities filled with people he knows.
Zach is the perfect navigator — he loves maps and was born with a memory that doesn’t forget. Routes, people, events, and dates are stored forever on his “hard drive.” As they travel into the cities of their past, Zach regales these concrete facts, “I remember David Jackson he worked with you as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune I remember his desk it was near yours…”
Bissinger’s memories in contrast are weighted with feelings of pain and guilt: the birth of his premature twins, struggles in his writing career, his divorce from Zach’s mother, and a lack of closure surrounding his parents’ deaths. These memories are woven into the plot as they venture further west, and Bissinger tries to gauge Zach’s feelings regarding all of them. In the end it is Zach’s action that brings Bissinger peace in an unlikely place: Los Angeles, the city where he experienced his most “personal and professional failure.”
Father’s Day: A Journey Into the Mind & Heart of My Extraordinary Son is available from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and from Amazon at a list price of $26.00.