Friday Night Lights is a nonfictional book by H.G. Bissinger which details the culture that has developed around high school football in west Texas. More specifically, the book tells the story of a single football season at Permian High School in Odessa, Texas, home of the Permian Panthers.
What is the book about? In a nutshell, the book is about a city. Odessa is a working class town heavily rooted in the oil industry. In bad times, the city is full of crime and unemployment. But on Friday nights from September to December, the city comes together to watch the game of football.
This book strongly considers both the positive and negative aspects of a community with such an intense relationship with their local high school athletics. Bissinger doesn't let either side dominate; he makes it equally clear that the team provides a unifying presence for the town, gives the youth a great deal of hope, and brings a ray of light into an often depressing city. However, he doesn't neglect to point out how this is impacting the lives of the youth.
Thus, the book is also about young people trying to find their way in life. Throughout the book, a handful of players are followed as they attempt to navigate the often-confusing spotlight thrust on them. Personally, I felt the greatest impact came from the story of Boobie Miles, who was destined to be the centerpiece of the team but injured himself early in the season, taking the spotlight away from him.
Overall, the book is not as memorable for the football stories, but instead for the impact that the Permian High football team has on the city of Odessa, and how that relationship affects the people both on the field and off. It is that very perspective that makes this book transcend the concept of sports writing and become something more, something that makes a handful of astute observations about the connection between sport and life.
The aspect of this book that really makes this book stand out is its strict honesty. It truly captures the highs and lows of high school athletics, the city of Odessa, and the relationship between the two. The book is written in the first person, which adds a level of intimacy to the whole tale which, along with Bissinger's effective prose, really builds a connection to this clear picture of a complex situation.
This honesty, though, exposed some interesting contradictions that really illustrate the complex issues that run through this relationship between town and team. The most obvious is the vaulting ambition and unrealistic dreams of the athletes as opposed to the harsh reality that awaits them. This point is illustrated by the telling of stories of ex-members of the team and the paths that they have led, most of them negative. Another seeming contradiction is the relative innocence of these kids as opposed to the really cynical and exploitative manipulation of them by coaches, parents, boosters, college recruiters, and the community at large. This book has a strong feeling of "sharks in the water" which, for me, helped to shine a new perspective on competitive athletics; athletes often have a great deal of issues in their lives that non-athletes rarely have to face. Another contradiction, which I found particularly fascinating, was the strong dependence of the Permian athletic program upon black athletes, despite cultural racism which does not acknowledge their value as full human beings, a situation that exists in many places besides Odessa. This book takes the issue in a new direction by focusing on individual cases, especially that of Boobie Miles.
I would recommend this book to anyone interested in a book that describes the relationship of high school athletics to a city. I consider it essential reading for anyone involved in high school athletics or administration, and it is strongly recommended for a general audience. However, if you are interested in reading about the game of football itself, you might find this book lacking; the book does not devote a significant amount of time to on-field athletics.
Additional readings in this vein would include The Junction Boys by Jim Dent (a similar tale focusing on Bear Bryant and Alabama football), The Secret of Mojo by Regina McCally (a drier, more factual look at Permian High football), and Where the Game Matters Most by William Gildea (a more realistic look at Indiana high school basketball, as opposed to the touching but overly fuzzy Hoosiers).
The author has distributed an afterword on the internet describing what happened to the Permian High team and the city of Odessa in the ten years since the book was published. You can find it at http://www.dacapopress.com/fridaynight/afterword.html .