Like the star high school athlete whose abilities appear effortless to an outsider, Buzz Bissinger had a charmed early career as a writer. In 1987, at the age of 32, he won a Pulitzer Prize while at the Philadelphia Inquirer. A year later he moved his family to Odessa, Tex., with the idea that he would write a book about high school football. That book became Friday Night Lights. Published in 1990, it inspired a movie and two television shows, sold millions of copies, and all but created a certain genre of sports book.
Friday Night Lights is both an American classic and a touchstone for young journalists eager to take a big swing on an unlikely story. But for Bissinger himself, the success of Friday Night Lights has been almost impossible to replicate.
“I do think that had an impact on me,” Bissinger, 67, says, speaking by phone from his adopted hometown of Philadelphia. “People are ambitious; people want to top what they’ve done in the past. And I said to myself, I can’t possibly top this book, which created a lot of pressure.”
Perhaps that pressure is why it’s taken Bissinger over 30 years to return at book length to the subject that made him famous: football. This fall, Harper will publish The Mosquito Bowl, Bissinger’s painstakingly researched, vivid, and at times heartbreaking work of narrative nonfiction about two WWII regiments of Marines—both of which boasted an exceptional concentration of world-class football talent—and the mosquito-ridden scrimmage they played against each other in Guadalcanal on Christmas Eve of 1944.
Harper is comparing The Mosquito Bowl to narrative nonfiction classics such as Unbroken and The Boys in the Boat, but there was a time when Bissinger had almost given up on writing books entirely. “Everyone thinks that writing is sort of permanent in your life, but that’s not true,” he says. “Your eyes get tired, the words don’t come as easily. You’re looking for that great sentence, and frankly sometimes you have no excuses.”
After Friday Night Lights, it was seven years before Bissinger published his second book, A Prayer for the City, about politics in Philadelphia. Since then he’s written about baseball (Three Nights in August), basketball (Lebron’s Dream Team, cowritten with Lebron James), and his relationship with his special-needs son, Zach, who has savant syndrome (Father’s Day).
However, his early success remained difficult to recapture. “You write other books, and some do well, and some don’t do as well as you would hope,” Bissinger says. “I just said, It’s so labor intensive; it’s so isolating. It gets really lonely; it gets very nerve-racking. Maybe there’s something else I should be doing with my life.”
So Bissinger tried other things. “I’ve written for Hollywood, for a year for NYPD Blue, and I’ve even been a talk show host on a radio station,” he says. He also wrote the Vanity Fair cover story in which Caitlyn Jenner revealed that she’s a trans woman.
Plus, for the past decade or so, Bissinger has lived an unusually public life for a writer. In 2013, he wrote an article for GQ confessing to an expensive leather addiction. Buying leather clothing, he explained in the piece, gave him the same thrill he had once gotten from writing.
Around the same time, he signed on to cowrite Caitlyn Jenner’s autobiography, The Secrets of My Life, and appeared alongside her on television shows and lecture stages. Soon, Bissinger found himself talking as much about his leather style—and what that style did or didn’t say about his own sexuality—as about his famous first book.
“For a while there I was living a very public life,” Bissinger says. “I don’t know if you’ve seen it—I would advise against it—but there was an HBO documentary that was made about me called Buzz.” It came out in 2019. “I talked openly about a lot of private things—sexual appetites, sexual proclivities—and while I think it’s to be admired whenever anyone talks openly about anything, I just decided, You know what? I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to display myself at the mercy of the public. I want a quiet life; I want to focus and concentrate on what I care about.”
Bissinger hadn’t been looking for a new book project during those years—“I’ve learned that when you cast about for a subject consciously, you put too much pressure on yourself and come up with a lot of bad ideas,” he notes—but when he stumbled upon a passing reference online to the Mosquito Bowl, a little-known chapter in WWII history, his old journalistic instincts kicked in.
“It probably took me a year of back and forth,” he says, before he was ready to commit to the hard work of writing another book. But after he discovered a familial connection to his subject, he didn’t look back. “My father was a Marine at Okinawa. He never talked about it, except in little dribs and drabs, but during the course of research I looked up some of his records, and I learned that he was in one of the regiments I’m writing about. That just put me over the top. Looking at a picture of two of the guys playing in the Mosquito Bowl, they look like my dad, 19 years old.”
Soon, Bissinger was writing again. The loneliness that had put him off of it for so many years remained, but the satisfaction that had first drawn him to the career was there as well. “There was the cat and mouse of research, finding a little strand that leads to another strand,” he says, “and bit by bit you’re able to draw a portrait or a scene, or pull the string on a theme. The writing was hard, but it was a return to what I love.”
It took Bissinger five years to finish researching and writing The Mosquito Bowl. “After the third or fourth year, I thought, I may be dead by the time this book comes out,” he says. “But the loneliness is abated by just keeping at it. I probably had five to six thousand index cards, and 50 to 60 binders of different subject matter. There were agonizing days and nights. You’ve got to be on top of it every day, but it’s exciting when you see it grow.”
The resulting book is a return to form: powerful, tender, and moving. Bissinger says that by telling the stories of the Marines of the 4th and 29th regiments before and after the Mosquito Bowl, he aimed to create a portrait of America in the process of losing its innocence. Many of the Marines who played in the game were killed a few months later at the battle of Okinawa, and those who made it home found themselves living in a changed world.
It’s been over 30 years since Friday Night Lights, but The Mosquito Bowl proves that football is still a powerful metaphor for the American experience. “It was not a perfect time,” Bissinger says of WWII. “America has always been imperfect. But it was a special time, in which you served without question; you did your duty without question. It didn’t matter what your background was: you could be from the Ivy League, or you could have no high school education—but in that foxhole, you are together.”
Bissinger isn’t sure what’s next for him after The Mosquito Bowl. “I’m not young,” he says. “I’m 67, and this may be it, because these books really take a large chunk of time. But I tried other things, and felt that I want to go home again. I want to write the kinds of books that I started writing when I was in my 30s.”
For the first time in years, Bissinger says he is at peace with the kind of life—by turns isolating, by turns frustrating, but also occasionally thrilling—that writing book-length narrative nonfiction demands.
“It felt great,” Bissinger says. “This was right. Maybe I’d wasted too many years of my life trying to do something else.”
Andy Kifer is a writer and editor who lives in the Hudson Valley. He is working on a book of narrative nonfiction about America’s secret cities.