Sunday, July 18, 2010

Friday Night Lights, Chapter 1: Odessa

Chapter one opens on a Monday morning in mid-August, 1988, as coaches and players arrive at the Permian High School field house for the first time that season. The bills of the coach’s hats are still stiff, the sweatbands still unstained. The field house smells of furniture polish: “the dust and dirt of the previous season were forever wiped away.”

Wiped away, but not forgotten or ignored. Coach Gary Gaines and his staff assemble the 55 boys that comprise the Panthers to remind them not just of their elite status in the school and community but their responsibility to the Panther legacy, though verbalizing both sentiments seems redundant. The field house’s Permian Wall of Fame immortalizes every Panther to have been name All State; a city council proclamation honoring a state championship team hangs on another wall; the county library’s history of Panther football is longer and more detailed than that of the city.

The town always has high expectations for its high school football, but is unusually excited about the 1988 team. A roster of experienced players was returning. Boosters regarded the team as the most talented in a decade and the Associated Press picked the team to win State.

The 1988 season at this point is as much a blank slate as Odessa itself was a hundred years before. Located 350 miles east of Dallas, the city was created by a group of speculators from Ohio. They sold the 14,000 mostly barren acres that would make up the city on pitches and promises that ranged from highly conditional to outright lies. At least 10 families of German Methodists from Pennsylvania did settle in Odessa, but they were soon clashing with the ranchers and cowboys who were already there. In 1900, the city had 381 residents. Ten years later there would be 1,178. By 1920 the population would be under 800 again.

There are a lot of references this chapter to the general unpleasantness of the geography around and the difficulty of life in Odessa. Directly quoting Bissinger:

  • “...gaping land that filled the heart with far more sorrow than… encouragement”
  • “virtually impossible to farm anything”
  • “physically wretched”
  • “lacked a fantastic amount”
  • “a place that cried out daily for alcohol”

He also describes regular droughts that made ranching also almost impossible; the land being so flat that there weren’t even trees tall enough to hang cattle rustlers and horse thieves (they were shot instead); and on top of this misery, a flu epidemic in 1919 that killed so many people so quickly that there weren’t enough healthy ones to dig graves

Odessa is situated in the Permian Basin, though, and in the mid 1920s oil was discovered in West Texas. The population boomed, and a who new set of miseries befell Odessa: wild overcrowding, lawlessness, prostitution, chronic diarrhea, bad water, and streets so thick with mud that oxen were required to transport drilling equipment through town, and an overwhelming rat infestation.

Bissinger describes the boom-and-bust cycles of the next decades as “a drug-induced euphoria followed by the lows of the bust and the realization that everything you made during the boom had had just been lost.” Odessa became a place where people flocked when there was money to be made, but a place they got the hell away from quickly once the money dried up. In 1987, Money magazine called it the 5th worst place to live in the country. The next year, the year the book takes place, Psychology Today took into account its rates of alcoholism, crime, suicide and divorce and named Odessa the country’s 7th most stressful city.

In the book's preface, Bissinger emphasized the universality of his story; this was not going to be a Texas story necessarily, but an American one. He returns to that theme near the end of the first chapter. Odessa may have invested its heart, soul and faith in high school football but it was just doing with the Permian Panthers what every other culturally or geographically isolated city does with something. As Gaines addresses his players in the opening hours of the 1988 pre-season he knows this won’t be his team for long, in a week he’ll be sharing it with the whole town. He also knows that a successful post-season run is the least of Odessa’s expectations. While a trip to the state championship will mean euphoria and joy, an unsuccessful regular season will bring anger and disappointment.


I’m not going to guess at intent on the part of the TV show’s writers and directors, but I am going to point out elements in the book that seem like the show maybe references or calls back to, even if it's obscure. For instance, the Permian Wall of Fame in the team’s field house has an analog in the show. In addition:

  • The local oil industry’s boom and bust history, and the out-of-towners who come to exploit the former part of the cycle, gets referenced in the first season.
  • The first chapter references a giant sand storm symbolic of the difficulty of life in Odessa, somewhat like the tornado that ravages Dillon in the second season and precedes conflicts between beloved characters.
  • A local historical figure in the book is a doctor named J.D. Cone, whose gets an alliterative descendant in third season quarterback phenomenon J.D. McCoy.
  • A discussion of the town’s very high rate of violent crime and murder can’t help but bring to mind a grisly murder in the second season.
  • The image of someone flying over Odessa in a plane at night.
  • The Permian Panthers are starting their season with expectations and pressure as great as those facing television’s Dillon Panthers.

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