Sunday, July 11, 2004

H.G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights: a Town, a Team, and a Dream, 1990.

Bissinger, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, took a year off to investigate the culture of high school football in the States. This book, focusing on the 1988 Permian Panthers of Odessa, TX, tries to get a handle on what makes football--and high school football, at that--the all-consuming passion that it is. I don't think he entirely succeeds.

In addition to chronicling the highs and lows of the team's season, introducing us to the players--and what consumes them, other than football--and telling us the story of the season, Bissinger also teaches us about the town of Odessa, and why it is so largely devoted to "Mojo"--their moniker/cheer for the Panthers. He starts the book proper with a cursory description of Odessa, which, for a time in the '80s, had the dubious distinction of having the highest per capita murder rate in the United States, but moves on. Bissinger explores in depth racial tensions--desegregation came to Odessa only in any real sense in '82--school districting that may have been gerrymandered to the advantage of Permian High over cross-town Odessa High. He describes the town's history and growth, contrasting it with that of neighbouring Midland.

Despite all of his investigations, each interesting and worthy of exploration, the book never really escapes the cheesiness epitomized in its subtitle. All Bissinger really tells us is that football is popular because it's what the people of Odessa, and similar towns throughout Texas and the Midwest and the whole USA, have chosen to care about. I've visited towns like these on band tours, and I've seen this phenomenon firsthand. I love football. But telling me that it's like this largely because it's almost always been like this just doesn't quite cut it. It's an interesting enough book, and a quick read, but it's far from earth-shattering. If you go rent Varsity Blues, you'll pick up the highlights of Friday Night Lights just as quickly.