People liked hearing that Texas was back, that they were tough and could take it and were up on their feet again. Fact and fiction merged. They liked George Bush in the same way they absolutely worshiped Ronald Reagan, not because of the type of America that Reagan actually created for them but because of the type of America he so vividly imagined.
–From Friday Night Lights by H.G. Bissinger
A few years ago I worked for an organization that focused exclusively on rural issues. It was my first foray into frequently speaking with and researching people who didn’t grow up in the liberal bubbles within which I navigated my life. I quickly realized that the things I had “known” about rural places, particularly rural white places, were often just stories and caricatures of a way of living very different from my own.
Since then there’s been this pull inside me to learn more and read more about rural places — not just the news headlines about crazy conservative politics, but first person narratives and in-depth journalism that can only come from lived experience.
A lot of my reading about rural places has been from authors of color, like Louise Erdrich’s beautiful works about Chippewa reservations (example: Love Medicine) and Isabel Wilkerson’s fantastic odyssey The Warmth of Other Suns about the Great Migration. In picking up Friday Night Lights, I felt like I had found a thoughtful, respectful book about small-town (if not exactly rural) white America.
On face, Friday Night Lights is all about football. The author-journalist Bissinger moved to Odessa, Texas in 1988 to capture the entirety of one high school football season. He moved his whole family with him, sending his kids to school in the Odessa school system and doing his best to fully embed into the community through endless interviews and longer-term profiles of the team’s coach and several key players.
Bissinger eloquently captures the frenzy that overtook Odessa every Friday night that a football game was happening — the intense pride and unity that all community members supporting Permian High School felt for “their boys,” as well as the intense pressure the football players themselves felt to be perfect both on and off the field so as to live up to their community’s dreams. There are stories of the school district chartering a jet for fans to travel to away games, of teachers giving the football players test answer sheets along with their test to help keep grades up, of players delaying X-rays on knowingly-fractured bones so as not to become ineligible for playing in the next game, of the near-celebrity status of the stars of the team.
You can see pretty early on though that this is not just a book about the craze of football. It’s also a book about the town itself — its people and its politics, as well as the way it represents a lot of small-town middle America overall and the values of much of that demographic.
Some of the parts I found most interesting were about how the town of Odessa grew and changed over the years, including the race politics of the city. Oil created Odessa, which was mostly white in its beginnings. During the boom years new people arrived and the town flourished, and in the years when oil prices were low the town fell into a stagnancy and economic depression common to so many other small-town places. The black community of course lived almost exclusively on one side of the tracks, in the least desirable part of the city. When Latinos began moving to Odessa in larger numbers, most of them lived on the black side of the tracks as well, though some were able to make it to more affluent part of the town.
As the city got bigger the eastern part of town became the most affluent, most white section and also the location of the football powerhouse high school Permian. Bissinger chronicles how football played a role in perpetuating racism as it grew. When the town was forced to integrate its schools for instance, the black high school got closed down. Permian High School got to have a larger share of the black residents bused to their high school than the third high school across town because of the belief that blacks were faster than whites and the best candidates for runningbacks on the football team. Bissinger discusses several other unsavory accounts of race biases and discrimination throughout the book.
Some of Friday Night Lights is about politics. I felt that Bissinger did a great job of capturing why conservative politics resonated so strongly with the residents of Odessa. Respect, pride, and fighting for your lot in life were values burned into them by the indignities of the economic depression and the isolation they felt from the government. A few particular chapters of the book took me forward light years in understanding (not agreeing with) conservative towns — that it’s not about the policies but the rhetoric and the ability of politicians to tap into a hazy, dreamy vision of American grit. I kept having flashbacks to that Chrysler/Eminem commercial from the Super Bowl of a few years ago as Bissinger detailed the particular political ethos of the town.
I do have some reservations however about what this book meant to the residents of Odessa. The book faced a lot of controversy when it came out, and many people in the town didn’t appreciate the way Bissinger talked about their frenzy for football or their racial dynamics. Bissinger stresses his journalistic objectivity in defending his book, but the idea that anyone can be a completely impartial reporter has never sat well with me. So I do wonder what is missing from the book — if there are ways in which it doesn’t completely capture what the town was all about.
I think it’s about being open to multiple truths. You can learn a lot through documenting a new reality or from reading someone else’s first-hand experience of a new place, but I’m sure there are even more stories to be had that rest with the people of Odessa themselves. All in all, a well-created portrait.