Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger

Da Capo, 1990 (2000 revision), 357 pages, C$10.95 mmpb, ISBN 0-306-81425-0

This is going to sound like a cliché, but trust me: This may be a book about football, but you certainly don’t need to know anything about the sport to enjoy it.

That’s largely because H.G. Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights is less about football than the people who care about football. In 1988, a thirty-something east coast journalist moved across the country in an effort to spend a year living in Odessa, a small Texas town whose high school football team attracts twenty thousand fans every weekend. For a year, Bissinger would use Odessa’s legendary passion for high school football as a prism through which to study the town. The result of his experience would prove to be even more striking than he expected, mixing sports, culture, class, race, gender and politics in a landmark book.

For a 1990 book, Friday Night Lights has left quite a mark. Hailed as a significant work (“Sport Illustrated’s #1 Football Book of all Time”, says the back cover), well-adapted to the big screen in 2004, even spawning a well-received TV show, Bissinger’s work has obviously touched a nerve going well beyond “a football book”.

The reason for this enthusiasm is perceptible from the first pages of the book, as Bissinger’s smooth prose immediately tackles its subject. Not the Permian Panthers football club, but the madness surrounding them in Odessa. The issues facing the town: rusting industries, ingrained racism, feelings of class resentment against the neighboring white-collar town of Midland, and so on. Then there’s the team: Bissinger efficiently portrays the very different young men on the team, and the expectations facing them.

One of those young men is “Boobie” Miles, an academically-disadvantaged teenager with bright prospects for a football-filled future. The Panthers come to depend on him, which proves to be a dramatic trap when Miles is injured early during the season. This story, out of so many, comes to form the dramatic backbone of the book in-between chapters dealing with bigger issues.

It’s not much of an exaggeration to say that Football is Odessa’s religion, not after the colorful way that Bissinger describes the town: The professional-grade football stadium next to the school (raising issues of academic funding, especially when it’s revealed that the health-care budget of the team is bigger than the textbook budget of the entire English department), the radio talk shows, the signs in people’s lawns, the celebrity attained by the players: small wonder if, after graduating, the Odessa players feel such a let-down in college football.

But to many readers without a strong interest in football, it’s Bissinger’s social study of Odessa that will hit the mark. Football is essential to the city, and just as essential in understanding its issues of racial segregation, gender roles, anti-intellectualism, political preferences and class. Bissinger makes effective use of well-written anecdotes, statistics, eyewitness accounts and third-party sources to give a convincing portrait of the events of life in Odessa during 1988-1989. (Sadly, the book lacks an index.)

This paperback movie tie-in edition makes effective use of the intervening years by presenting a satisfying postscript describing where the players are, ten years later. Cinephiles will note that the excellent movie adaptation only focuses on the football team, leaving much to discover in the book for socially-minded readers.

Absorbing and fascinating like only the best non-fiction can be, Friday Night Lights has escaped its initial billing as a sport book to become a capsule social study. It’s a wonder to read and a thrill to recommend: don’t miss it, even if you don’t know anything about the finer points of football.

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