Friday Night Lights

by H. G. Bissinger

 

If you haven’t heard of this book, you might have seen the recent, and popular, TV show of the same name. Or the movie, which came out around ten years ago. Or hopefully you’ve at least heard of either of these.

If you haven’t, the expression ‘friday night lights’ refers to high school football (college football is played on Saturday, pro football on Sunday), particularly in towns where football games are the biggest events of the year.

Now, I didn’t grow up in such a place. When I was in high school I never went to a game, and the only time I can remember going to a high school game was when I was around eight. I went with my friend, whose brother was on the team, but we kids mostly just played around under the bleachers. Even when I started enjoying sports, and though I still have pride in my high school, I never had much interest in going to W-L football games, and most of my friends were the same way.

But in Texas, it would seem that things are different. Friday Night Lights indicates that, at least in Odessa and at least in the 1980’s, city life virtually revolved around high school football: the Friday night game was the highlight of the week, football season was the highlight of the year, and for many kids playing varsity football would be the highlight of their lives. Bissinger relates the story of Permian Panthers’ 1988 season primarily through the eyes of a diverse group of players, whose biggest dream is winning a state championship.

Friday Night Lights is about more than one team’s extraordinary efforts on the football field. Bissinger, almost by accident, finds himself exploring deeper, and darker, themes in 1980’s America. It begins with Odessa’s clear educational priorities. The school district, after a prolonged fight against desegregation, ended up drawing new school boundaries to ensure that Permian would get a larger share of black students, seen by the school as potential football stars. Varsity players often did not have to do their homework or even attend class. And academic achievement was largely ignored. One football player, Brian Chavez, is a star with the Panthers, which takes precedence over his other main achievement- being valedictorian.

Bissinger doesn’t stop with Texas education policy. He critiques 1980’s American economic and political culture, and the disaffection many felt from our leaders and their policies. Friday Night Lights is, at its core, about the false promises of America, and the uncommon endurance of the American Dream.

If that sounds grandiose, yeah, it is a bit. Bissinger takes pretty powerful, self-evident examples, and attempts to use them as evidence of an entire nation’s failings. Though I was born in 1989, I didn’t really live through that era. My guess is that Friday Night Lights would have had more meaning for me if I had actually experienced the 80’s, experienced desegregation and oil busts and booms and the 1988 presidential election. The book might be seen in a whole new light with the proper cultural context. So it is unfortunate that I never got that chance.

On the other hand, I get the benefit of Bissinger’s retrospective. He claims to have received death threats from Odessans, who understandably felt betrayed by an outsider who came into their town, had unique access to the team, and seemed to be caught up in the glory of the Permian Panthers. Bissinger makes it clear that he was indeed caught up in the team’s season, regardless of the problems the book exposed.

Similarly, the reader, too, gets caught up in the story of an unlikely group of kids that seems destined for great things. Rich and poor, black and white, the Panthers have their share of ups and downs through the season, struggling to prove that an undersized team from the middle of nowhere can achieve great things.

Friday Night Lights is more than a sports story, it is a very interesting critique of American society. I would highly recommend it, if you think you can handle it.

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The Big Short

by Michael Lewis

 

I think I was meant to like this book, for several reasons. First of all, I have read a couple of Lewis’ other books, The Blind Side and Moneyball. Both were excellent, and yes, I am the type of hipster that will tell you I read the books before the movies came out. (I never saw The Blind Side and I thought Moneyball was good, but not great; both films received Oscar nominations for Best Picture.) Lewis was able to blend histories of football and baseball with the personal stories of Michael Oher and Billy Beane to make entertaining, informative, and at times touching books.

I’m fascinated by Wall Street culture, at least as portrayed in films such as Wall Street and American Psycho, and I was hoping to see a bit of that and how it played into the subprime mortgage crisis. Although I sympathize with anti-Wall Street protests, it’s still fun to get a peek at their world. I mean, you don’t need to like gangs to enjoy The Sopranos or The Wire. Gordon Gekko is a great character, even though I hate what he stands for.

I was also curious about the collapse of the economy, which I blame for not having a good job and for everything else I don’t like about my life. I paid attention to the news a lot in 2008, and I still didn’t really have a clue as what set it off, how and why the government got involved, and how I would be affected. If anyone could explain it all in a way that I could understand, it would be Michael Lewis.

Well, The Big Short did show the Wall Street hubris I had been expecting (though I think that Lewis’ 1989 semi-memoir Liar’s Poker would have more of this). It also did an excellent job of explaining the crisis in a way that any idiot, like me, would understand. Essentially, the book tells the story of what happens when banks give home loans to people who almost certainly won’t be able to pay them back. The loans are packaged together and sold as a bond, which contains some loans that will be worthless and some that will be paid. This bond is then chopped up, combined with others, and sold as a CDO to disguise the fact that they often contained bad investments. Banks and huge Wall Street firms soon got knee-deep in other wacky derivatives that were so far removed from what they represented that investors never realized it was a house of cards. If you want an explanation that wasn’t written by an idiot, The Big Short should be very helpful. Though I had to refer back to Lewis even for my weak summary, I can assure you that I understand the economics of the crisis much better than I did before.

Understanding all these obscure financial concepts is never the problem here. The problem is that Lewis tells the story by focusing on the handful of people who saw the crisis for what it was and decided to bet against the subprime mortgage machine, directly and indirectly. Some are insiders, some are not, and some are more likeable than others. For me, just keeping them straight was hard, and I kind of wish Lewis had stayed away from their personal lives and focused on their involvement with the market. I never developed an emotional connection with any of them, and I think it doesn’t help that all were making money off of an apocalyptic scenario. Some of Lewis’ protagonists even admit this as well: all were feeding the doomsday machine and stood to profit substantially when the machine finally broke down.

I get it, or I think I do, that Lewis chose these people as the subjects of The Big Short because they were the only ones to see the mess coming, the only ones so confident that they were right that they were willing to put their money, hundreds of millions of dollars, where their figurative mouths were. They are not, however, the ‘good guys’. That they were right does not change the fact that they made money while failing to prevent millions of homebuyers from being taken advantage of. Perhaps if Lewis had included some of the 99% in the book, it would have had the emotional anchor that made his other work special.

If you want to understand the subprime mortgage crisis, this account is superb; seriously, if you’re curious at all, read it. But I don’t think they’re going to make it into a movie anytime soon.