TRAVERSE CITY — Pulitzer Prize-winning author Buzz Bissinger didn’t pick an easy topic when he decided to take his son on a cross-country trip and write a book about it.
His son, Zach, now 29, is a savant who suffered trace brain damage caused by lack of oxygen during his 13-week-premature birth.
The mini-van trip from Philadelphia to Los Angeles that occurred five years ago took two weeks. The book took four years.
Bissinger is the National Writers Series' guest author Tuesday evening at the City Opera House and will talk about his 2012 memoir, Father Days: A Journey into the Mind and Heart of My Extraordinary Son. He also is the author of five highly acclaimed nonfiction books: Friday Night Lights, A Prayer for the City, Three Nights in August, Shooting Stars, and Father’s Day.
The former journalist at the Philadelphia Inquirer received a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative reporting of a story about corruption in the Philadelphia court system.
Bissinger initially thought it might take 18 months to write Father’s Day, but he put it aside half-way through the first draft.
“It was lousy,” he said. “That kind of writing is close to the bone, and my son doesn’t have the defense mechanism to tell me he didn’t want something in the book. I worked really hard to get it right. I tried to make it poignant, funny and relied heavily on dialogue.”
He also wanted the book to be honest about Zach’s reality and his own. Reviewers believe he succeeded. Their descriptions of his honesty ranged from “remarkable,” “wrenching” and “brutal,” yet also “funny and painful with something that will resonate for every parent.”
Bissinger said reader reaction has been strong.
“A lot has been extremely positive, and a lot has come from the parents of special needs kids who thanked me for being honest,” he said. “I didn’t want to sugarcoat it. I knew that people would have strong opinions about the book and that’s how writers should write. Too much writing is soft and needs to take chances.”
Bissinger describes his son as borderline mentally retarded with an IQ of 70 and the comprehension of a 9-year-old. He recalls his owns thoughts in the hospital delivery room when he saw the doctor holding his 1-pound, 11-ounce son as the infant struggled to breathe.
“I knew that if he survived, he would not remotely be the son I imagined. Which is a nicer way saying he would not remotely be the son I wanted,” he wrote.
He admits his guilt and shame for thinking that and also for believing he and his son had been robbed by the circumstances of Zach’s birth.
“I am not proud to feel or say this,” Bissinger wrote in the first chapter. “But I think these things, not all of the time, but too many times, which only increases the cycle of my shame. This is my child. How can I look at him this way? Because I do. Because I think we all do when confronted with difference, reality vs. expectation, never at peace or even truce.”
Zach is a twin. His brother, Gerry, was born three minutes before him and did not suffer oxygen deprivation. Gerry attended public schools, has a master’s degree and is working on a doctoral degree.
Zach spent the first seven months of his life in intensive care. He attended schools for brain-injured students. He bags groceries in a store near his home and also works in the mail delivery department of The Philadelphia Inquirer. He is independent and is now learning how to cook because he wants to live in a group home with friends. He splits his time living with his parents, who are divorced and live about a half-hour drive apart in Philadelphia. He loves food and roller coasters.
Bissinger said Zach also is blessed with rare talents: “an astonishing memory, a dazzling knack for navigation, and a reflexive honesty which can make him both socially awkward and surprisingly wise.”
The road trip, which included a 158-foot bungee jump at Zach’s request, did strengthen the bond between them.
“Zach is the greatest person I know,” he said. “I came away realizing that he is the man I admire most in my life.”
The guest host for Tuesday event is Neal Rubin, a Detroit New columnist who also currently writes the nationally syndicated comic strip “Gil Thorp.”.
City Opera House doors open Tuesday at 6 p.m. and The Evening with Buzz Bissinger starts at 7 p.m.
Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door. Purchase online at www.cityoperahouse.org or by calling 941-8082.