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Monday, July 13, 2009

cover of 'Friday Night Lights

This may be the best nonfiction book I've ever read. Maybe that's not saying much, since I don't read all that much nonfiction, but I found it engrossing and well-written. The well-known book that's been turned into a movie and a TV series follows the season of High School football for the Permian panthers in Odessa, Texas; but along the way, Bissinger not only brings the town and the people to life, he also gives fascinating insights to racism, classism, politics, the oil bust and boom, the history and culture of Odessa and neighboring rivals, as well as the fanatical, near-religious devotion to football.

Every now and then I found myself wondering about the narrator-- not because he is present or noticeable in the text, but precisely because he is so invisible and yet manages to capture so many details and moments in a way that seems so clear and insightful; even though it's never mentioned, I imagine the author doing his careful, meticulous research, following along all season long with the team, the coaches, the players and their families to capture so many of these crucial moments in the season, and to hear and understand their stories.

There are so many fascinating insights here that are just a part of the fabric of the story that Bissinger tells. For instance, desegregation of the schools in Odessa was delayed quite a bit, in part because no one wanted to mess up the football programs; and when they finally did desegregate, the district lines were gerrymandered so that Permian would get a greater share of the black athletes. When the star running back is severely injured, he becomes a nobody, and they don't even try to coach him back, they just replace him with somebody else; when he no longer gets the preferential treatment of a football player, he can't keep up with his classwork because he never was really taught.

The story of the many oil millionaires in nearby Midland Lee gives a personal glimpse into the oil industry, and the way that government policies had a tremendous impact on people's lives, and the striking difficulty of getting oil from Texas as compared to the Middle East. Men who happened to be in the right place at the right time were suddenly rich because of luck and politics, but because they thought it was their own business skill they all spent and invested like crazy, until suddenly the oil prices crashed and all these oil-millionaires went broke.

This edition of the book includes a look at where the players were ten years later, and it is fascinating, but mostly quite sad. For a school year or two, these young men were treated like heroes and gods, they could do no wrong and were allowed to get away with pretty much anything-- but as soon as they lost in the semi-finals and the season was over, that was gone and they were replaced by the next group of kids who had worked and dreamed of playing for Permian since they were children. Even the few who were able to play college football talk about how nothing was ever quite like playing for Permian.

Title:Friday Night Lights
Author:H. G. Bissinger
Date published:1990
Number of pages: 367
Notes: borrowed from Sapphire


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