Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Booknote: _Friday Night Lights_

I finished reading H.G. Bissinger's book Friday Night Lights (1990), the one they made the movie out of recently with Billy Bob Thornton. I will say upfront that I have not seen the film, but having read the book has made me curious, and I will likely go get the movie. I am the type who prefers to read a book first before I watch the movie it was based upon. This is not always possible, but it is what I attempt at least. For instance, I watched Silence of the Lambs first before I read the book. I love the movie still; I think Hannibal Lecter as portrayed by Anthony Hopkins is quite compelling, fascinating even. The book is quite different from the movie, and I know that movie adaptations certainly do not catch every nuance in the book. Hannibal is another example, but I will leave that for another post since it seems I am starting to disgress.

Friday Night Lights is a very interesting book. On the cover of the paperback edition I read, there is a blurb by David Halberstam that describes the book as "a remarkable book, fascinating from start to finish, full of surprises." While I don't totally agree with the whole quote, the book certainly is remarkable and fascinating, though I found it a bit predictable at times, like most sports stories tend to be in terms of knowing who wins and who loses what games and when. I won't put in any spoilers in the hopes that people who have not read it go ahead and read it because I think it is a worthy book. It is not a book for the faint of heart or those who are too involved in political correctness.

In terms of its pace, the book moves along steadily. One of the things that makes the book interesting is that it is not just a book about high school football. It is also a book about a small town in Texas, the town of Odessa, a town that grew and suffered with the vicissitudes of the oil booms and busts of the 1980s. By the way, in the process of reading about Odessa, the reader also learns a bit about how the United States was back in the decade of the 1980s. So, the reader gets a bit of history as well. High school football is king in this region, and people live for it quite literally, sometimes to the detriment of other important things. This is another thing that makes the book so compelling, reading about the town and its hopes as carried by the local football team. The book does have a bit of ugliness to it as well, if I can put it that way. The book was published in 1990. The author spent the 1988 football season with the Permian Panthers. In his afterword, which he wrote ten years later as a reflection on the past, he describes the controversy the book sparked. The book is very honest, often brutally so, about the obsession the town has over football and its team, and the way that young lives are often literally destroyed as a result. The author also presents the sacrifices the student players make, often at a very high price, and he does so in graphic detail. Needless to say, the author is pretty much a persona non grata for many in the town. In the afterword, he wrote the following, which I think catches the essence of the book:

"Over the years I have been accused of betrayal, and sensationalism, and taking information out of context, and misquoting. I am not surprised by these accusations, nor I am troubled by them. When I first arrived in Odessa, I anticipated a book very much in the tradition of the film Hoosiers, a portrait of the way in which high school sports can bring a community together. There were elements of that bond in Odessa, and they were reflected in the book.

But along the way some other things happened--the most ugly racism I have ever encountered, utterly misplaced educational priorities, a town that wasn't bad or evil but had lost any ability to judge itself. It would have been a journalistic disgrace to ignore these elements.

The book is fair and true. It was never intended as a diatribe or an expose. It was written instead with enormous affection and empathy, because as deeply troubling as the overemphasis was on high school football, those games were, and always will be, the most exquisite sporting events that I have ever experienced."

That is the ugliness I referred to earlier, the racism. The author shows it in all its raw and terrible form, and it's juxtaposed with great sequences of the games. Any sport fan who likes to read about good football will enjoy this book. My feeling is that the movie probably emphasizes the action sequences, since they are quite good, but I will have to see the movie. When I see the movie, I will let everyone know. However, the book also is strong in its depictions of misplaced priorities and how students are affected, often in a very negative way, and I am guessing the people in Odessa did not appreciate having their little secret exposed. But it is not something unique to Odessa; many small towns live for the Friday Night Lights, though this town seems to really carry it to an extreme.

I mentioned in my profile that I was a high school teacher. I taught in a public school in Indiana, and those who know about Indiana know that high school basketball is king over there. The school I taught at also happened to be one of the powerhouses in its region when it came to football. In fact, I had football players in my classes. And while the pressures to make sure they passed their classes so they could play were not as extreme as those the teachers in Odessa experienced, I was exposed to such pressures in more subtle ways, especially since I was not the type to teacher to simply pass a kid because they played a sport. Having said that, the culture at the school I was at also valued their academics, so my players tended to be pretty diligent about studying and getting their work done. Not all of them, there is always the one who wants to coast, but overall I was fortunate when compared to the teachers in Odessa that the author describes. Being someone still interested in education issues, that aspect of the book at times angered me and disturbed me, and I get the feeling it will stir feelings in other readers, especially parents of teens who may become involved in high school sports, or any other extracurricular activity for that matter. It may force them to question what it is they really want for their children.

So, I strongly recommend the book for all readers. I think mature young adults will find it interesting since it depicts the high school experience quite well. I think adults will find it interesting for reasons I have mentioned and because overall it is a good read.

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