Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Friday Night Lights: One Story, Three Takes - PART ONE: The Book

Very mild spoilers ahead for the book (and by extension, the film) Friday Night Lights

Over the course of the past 25 years, the story of high schoolers playing football in a seemingly unimportant corner of the United States has unexpectedly become a beloved multi-media franchise spanning the worlds of non-fiction publishing, Hollywood motion pictures, and network TV.

In the town of Odessa, Texas, located smack dab in the middle of the dusty West Texas plains, a population learned to live and die with the success of the local high school football team. Young boys grew ups learning the importance of the team that they would one day sacrifice their bodies and maybe their souls to. And these boys did so well on the field that they made the entire state of Texas stand up and take notice. And eventually, word of the fierce and fearsome play of the Permian Panthers reached the ears of a Philadelphia newspaperman, who saw both the team and the town that created them as perfect exemplars of a certain strain of Americana, one that was manifest throughout the country but was perhaps nowhere more apparent than in Odessa.  And it was then that the story of the Permian Panthers, the gridiron-obsessed fans, the depressed town, and the Friday night lights would begin to be told to the rest of the world...

H.G. "Buzz" Bissinger's book Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team, and a Dream was released in the fall of 1990, about two years after the author moved to Odessa to begin research. As a piece of literature, it is compulsively readable. The sheer amount of information, down to the smallest detail, that Bissinger gives the reader on every sentence on every page, is rivaled only by the eminently literate way he conveys it. It's anything but cold and clinical. Instead, Bissinger makes every chapter feel like a great short story, with evocative imagery and poetic turns of phrase that should make other journalists so envious they become angry. It has even been assigned in high school English classes alongside works like The Great Gatsby and To Kill a Mockingbird as an example of, if not a Great American Novel, than a Great American Literary Accomplishment, as if Boobie Miles, Brian Chavez, and the rest of the boys of the 1988 Permian High varsity football team were the vivid and lifelike creations of an imaginative mind in the vein of a Captain Ahab or a Huck Finn. Which, of course, they are, in a way. When I try to conceptualize the role a non-fiction writer plays in the "creating" of his or her "characters," I am reminded of the famous anecdote involving Michelangelo, who, when asked how he managed to create the David, was said to have proclaimed that "I saw the angel in the marble and I carved until I set him free.A great work of journalism strips away all the extraneous information, everything that clouds the audience's mind and prevents them from seeing the essential truth at the heart of the subject matter. Expertly, Bissinger carves out of the marble of West Texas the angels that would go on to lodge themselves in the memories of all that read the book. In his way, he has preserved the fleeting fall of 1988 for decades afterwards, and exploded the experience of giving everything one had on that field to millions of people around the planet, reading and finding themselves engrossed in the story even in places where football means something else, or nothing at all.

Friday Night Lights uses the story of a single season in Odessa, Texas as a way of looking at the town as a whole, and by extension, towns like it across America. The topics it explores are likely too many to truly do justice to here, but it particularly delves into the Reagan-era institutionalized racism that affected much of America, but particularly Southern towns, (a subject not commonly addressed in mass media, unlike the racism of the '50s or '60s); depression and unemployment brought on by the monoculture of the West Texas oil industry; and educational standards, and how they are compromised by the gratifying, and yet ultimately more hollow, pursuit of athletic achievement. Each chapter of the book covers both the events in Odessa over a brief period of time (say, one week leading up to a big game), as well as another topic -- something either intangible (the conservatism of small town America), sociologically specific (the cultural divisions between Odessa and its wealthier sister city Midland), or even just a biography and profile of a single player.

There is no central human protagonist of Bissinger's Friday Night Lights. The town is the single pervading figure, casting its long shadow over every figure and happening, but there are certain characters who are clearly of great interest to the author, chief among them being the young man who lends the book the name of its first chapter: 18-year-old James Miles, better known by the name "Boobie." Boobie Miles is the star of the Panthers roster, the town's great black hope, a running back with tremendous strength, speed, and agility. Before the season begins, Boobie is set to take the school to its fifth state championship, all while likely shattering team records left and right. Major college football programs across the country have their eyes on him, and his eyes are alight with daydreams of tearing down the gridiron in Austin, or College Station, or in the Rose Bowl. For him, the abandoned son of heroin addicts, living with his unemployed uncle in the predominately African-American ghetto of a economically depressed town, a college scholarship might be his only chance at a future of comfort and security. By being blessed with natural physicality and through years of preparation, it would seem that Boobie Miles has everything necessary for a way out. But over the course of the season, he comes to learn that his way through life will be much harder than he expected, partially due to poor planning on his part, but more so due to the racism and winners-only mentality of Odessa, and most of all, due to the random and cruel turns of happenstance that change his life forever. Miles is probably the heart and soul of this incarnation of Friday Night Lights, and it is no surprise that Bissinger, years later, published After Friday Night Lights, a coda of sorts to the book, one focused entirely on Miles and Bissinger's relationship with him.

Other figures capture Bissinger's attention as well. Mike Winchell is the quarterback, nothing like the stereotypical image of a meatheaded, bullying jock. He's sensitive, even fragile, unsure of his place in the world, hiding his modest blue-collar house from his classmates in embarrassment, crying over losses and personal failures. Bissinger details Mike's relationship (or lack thereof) with his distant older brother, and with his chronically sick mother, and pages are devoted to describing Winchell's final talks with his late father, dead of cancer before Mike even started high school. In the end, Winchell's anxiety-related privacy and shyness make him something of an enigma even to the author. Don Billingsley is the son of a Permian legend, and tries to live up to that legacy every Friday night, and fails more often than either Don nor his father would like to admit. The rest of the week Don is, at seventeen, a heavy drinker, the life of weekend parties, and an endless flirt. In a particularly chilling passage, in a book that has no shortage of them, Don is quoted using the word "n****r" multiple times, demonstrating that the town's prejudices is not just a relic of the past, but also something that infects even its youth. There's Jerrod McDougal, an undersized tackle who knows he has no real future in football, as much as he loves it; Brian Chavez, another antidote to jock stereotypes, a gifted and sharp student aiming for an Ivy League future while crushing his opponents on the field every week; and Ivory Christian, a highly religious young man whose Christian moralism comes into conflict with the competitiveness of the sport and the youthful hedonism of some of his teammates.

The reader learns of Odessa's history, its beginnings as an Old West cattle town with an infamous reputation, its growth in the Texas oil boom, and the rise of the high school football juggernaut that would come to characterize so much of life there. Bissinger explores nooks and crannies of Odessa history that shed more light on the city, including its struggles with the Civil Rights Movement. Ultimately, the image that one is left with when they put down the book could not be called positive. Primarily, the book is a critique: a critique of a culture that teaches young boys to worship slightly older boys who are able to throw a ball well; then when those boys get older, that culture puts unbelievable amounts of pressure on them to live up to a longstanding legacy; and when they are older still, teaches them to live in the perpetual shadow of a few briefs years in their adolescence. Some reviews have even called this version of Friday Night Lights a "horror story." This is not inaccurate, although Bissinger allows for moments of great warmth, and recognizes the joy and hope that something so inconsequential-seeming as high school football can bring a community that has little else to look forward to. Despite the critical tone, more in common with The Wire than Hoosiers, the book is dripping in sympathy for every last one of its characters, including the adults, even while finding fault in the walls they've built up around them.

One wishing to learn about the qualities -- positive, negative, and somewhere in between -- of America in 1988 would be hard pressed to find a work that better chronicles and understands them than H.G. Bissinger's Friday Night Lights. But H.G. Bissinger's Lights is not the only version of the story that is out there. In other media, through other authors, this story has reached a larger audience than even a bestseller like Bissinger's book could achieve. These different versions of the story, the 2004 film Friday Night Lights, directed by Peter Berg, and the NBC television series of the same name created by Berg have brought the themes to new eyes, but in doing so, take different approaches towards the characters, small town America, and high school football culture, and reveal themselves to be fundamentally separate works of art with different aims. These other takes on the same material I will be writing about soon, and contrasting them with the original take on the subject matter, exploring the differences and appreciating what all three takes can tell us about our own complicated relationship with certain aspects of American culture.

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