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Originally published May 27, 2012 at 5:00 AM | Page modified May 27, 2012 at 8:16 AM

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Book review

Buzz Bissinger's 'Father's Day': a father's love for two vastly different sons

Buzz Bissinger's "Father's Day" tells the story of the acclaimed author ("Friday Night Lights") and his relationship with his twin sons, one highly accomplished, the other brain damaged. Bissinger discusses his book Friday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Buzz Bissinger

The author of "Father's Day" will discuss his book at 7 p.m. Friday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
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'Father's Day: A Journey Into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son'

by Buzz Bissinger

Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt,

242 pp., $26

Loving someone who is "still so fundamentally mysterious" to him after many years of parenthood "... is the most terrible pain of my life," Buzz Bissinger writes.

The source of the mystery is Bissinger's son, Zach, who was born 13 weeks premature and three minutes after his twin brother, Gerry. The brain damage that resulted forever divided the two brothers: Gerry attended private school, college and an Ivy League graduate school, while Zach has struggled with basic mental functions for most of his life.

Besides his cognitive deficits, Zach is "special" for his savantlike memory for birthdays, map locations and other minutiae. Guileless and sweetly innocent in social situations, he is also a beloved co-worker, friend and family member.

This book is a stark departure for Bissinger, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning account of high school football, "Friday Night Lights" and three other books. "Father's Day" is a raw, intimate memoir that holds nothing back, baring a full measure of shortcomings and personal demons.

Partly to salve the "terrible pain" and to get to know his son better, Bissinger sets out with 24-year-old Zach in 2007 on a cross-country drive from Philadelphia to Los Angeles. Zach is overwhelmed when Bissinger broaches the idea of a trip, and to help ease his son's anxiety, they travel to places they know, including Chicago; Odessa, Texas; Los Angeles; and Las Vegas.

Like many an American road trip, the journey creates its own metaphor, familiar locales triggering memories and ruminations of years past. More than two decades after the traumatic birth of his twin sons, Bissinger is still reeling from the impact as he recounts Zach's medical treatment, delayed development, and special-education classes and teachers. Certain stops bring back his own sometimes troubled relations with his parents and their anguishing deaths.

The memories are not all bad. Bissinger reminisces about watching big league baseball as a boy and the characters and small towns in "Friday Night Lights." The highlight is a visit to Six Flags amusement park near St. Louis, where father and son exult in the shared thrill of scary rides, culminating in a heart-stopping bungee jump that seems to alter the trajectory of the entire trip.

"Father's Day" is by turns caustic and achingly tender, depending on the mood of the author-traveler. One moment he is hypercritical of his son, imposing unrealistic expectations — and in the next, a boon companion.

Zach, in comparison, is a sea of calm and consistency. "I still have no real idea of what he sees of the world when he looks out the window," Bissinger writes, "but it is never ugliness or cynicism or degradation."

Someone once said to me about parenting: "There's no such thing as quality time, only time." In this story, over time, the trials, terror and uncertainty that characterized his son's early life fall by the wayside, and Bissinger learns to define him not by his limitations but by his unique gifts. It's a kind of miracle to watch this unfold — the letting go, the recognition of Zach's fundamental goodness, and father falling in love again with his son.

David Takami is the father of two teenage boys.

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