FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS A Town, a Team and a Dream By H.G. Bissinger Addison-Wesley. 357 pp. $19.95
H.G. BISSINGER, a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer, took a leave of absence to follow the fortunes of the Permian Panthers, a high-school football team in the West Texas city of Odessa, during the 1988 season. He hoped to find the answers to certain questions: "What were the attitudes toward race? What were the politics, and as the 1988 election approached, what did people want from their president? In a country that was having more and more difficulty teaching its young, what was the educational system like? What did people hold on to as they watched their economic lifeblood slip from them? What did they hold on to as they watched their country slip from them? What had happened to their America?"
That's a heavy load to lay on a bunch of football players in an obscure, depressed oil town, but Bissinger was captive to the sentimental belief that "I would find the answers to all these questions in Odessa, not because it was a Texas town, but an American one." So after spending a year there, getting close to the football players and the coaches and the townspeople to whom their games mean so much, what did Bissinger come up with? No, Friday Night Lights is not a sociological study of small-town America and, no, it doesn't really answer the questions its author poses. For all the symbolic weight with which it has been freighted, in the end it is just another sports book -- better than most, perhaps, but very much a prisoner of its own genre.
This is a pity, for high-school football, especially as it is played in Texas, is rich material for the student of American life. That was demonstrated a decade ago by a photographer named Geoff Winnington, whose pictures of Texas football -- including some games played by Odessa Permian -- were published in Rites of Fall (University of Texas Press), along with a succinct text by Al Reinert; it was a fine, thoughtful, visually arresting book that emphasized the sport's high position in the state's civil religion. Bissinger, too, reaches for metaphor, but unlike Reinert and Winnington he only occasionally achieves it; he is so caught up in the details of the game and the emotions of its players, so committed to using the drama of the season as his book's narrative center, that Friday Night Lights ends up cheerleading more than it analyzes.
This may be regrettable so far as Bissinger's book is concerned, but certainly it is understandable. After a year in Odessa he developed strong ties to many of its residents, most particularly the young and vulnerable football players with whom he spent so much time in such emotionally charged circumstances. The affection he feels for all of these people permeates the book, and in a most attractive way; even as Bissinger recognizes the flaws of the system in which Texas football thrives, he acknowledges and celebrates the humanity of those who work and play within that system. Friday Night Lights is a decent, good-spirited book, and for this Bissinger deserves praise; it's just not as critical or as pertinent a book as he meant it to be.
If its lack of critical edge is explained by Bissinger's fondness for his subjects, its lack of pertinence derives from its setting. Bissinger's claims to the contrary notwithstanding, Odessa is not a representative American city and football as it's played in rural Texas is not a representative American game. Odessa is a "boom-and-bust oil town," a transient place trapped in the "hearty, hair-trigger temperament" of the frontier, "a paradoxical mixture of the Old South and the Wild West, friendly to a fault but fiercely independent, God-fearing and propped up by the Baptist beliefs in family and flag but hell-raising, spiced with the edge of violence but naive and thoroughly unpretentious" -- in sum, closer to a caricature of American stereotypes than a microcosm of American reality.
Ditto for Texas football. It is played with a ferocity and followed with an intensity that in most other parts of the country -- some sections of Pennsylvania and Ohio no doubt being exceptions -- would be regarded as lunatic. In the small towns and cities of Texas, high-school football isn't just something big; it comes perilously close to being everything, as reflected in the words of a fully grown adult in Odessa who said, "Life really wouldn't be worth livin' if you didn't have a high-school football team to support."
That may seem the voice of terminal immaturity, but it's what Texas football reduces people to. It's what the father of one player called "a make-believe world where normal rules don't apply," a world in which 18-year-old children are the most important people in town and the entire school system is subordinated to the primary goal of winning football games. It is, as Bissinger amply demonstrates, a crazy world and in some respects even a scary one; but it is not so much America in miniature -- except in the ways we've allowed sport to assume a disproportionately large role in our national life -- as an unwitting self-parody.
As it was played in Odessa in the fall of 1988, it was also a collection of cliches, the gridiron equivalent of a World War II foxhole movie: the overachieving, self-doubting quarterback; the halfback running in his fabled father's footsteps; the hugely gifted player brought down by a debilitating injury; the coach who was "just too damn nice" for his own good; the pretty girls and adoring mothers and howling fans. Toss into this brew an unpleasant racial atmosphere in the city and an indifference to academic achievement in the school, and you have the elements of soap-opera melodrama.
That, in the final analysis, is how Bissinger chooses to play it. His narrative builds not toward any genuinely revealing climax but toward a mere football game, a contest in the state championship tournament; though Bissinger is able to see the game more clearly than the people of Odessa, he takes their dream of a championship as seriously as they do and loses his critical distance in the process. Add to this a prose style that constantly strives for the overwrought and too often achieves it, and you have a book that settles for the broad road of pathos instead of the narrow path of clear-eyed, unsentimental objectivity.