Monday, November 30, 2020

2020 Advent Calendar: Nov 30, Pamela Pierce on Melissa Faliveno, Twister, and Friday Night Lights


I came to Melissa Faliveno’s “The Finger of God,” the opening essay in Tomboyland, at the same time that I was re-watching every episode of Friday Night Lights on Hulu. Friday Night Lights lasted for five seasons on NBC and later DirectTV, from 2006-2011. The story centers on Dillon Panthers football coach Eric Taylor, his wife Tami, daughter Julie, the players, and the people of Dillon, Texas. Everyone has a story worth telling. The same is true of Faliveno’s Mount Horeb, Wisconsin. Like Dillon, Mount Horeb is a God-fearing, “blue-collar place dealing in livestock feed and John Deere tractors.” My attraction to “The Finger of God” and FNL partly emerges from the deep attention to place present in both works. Faliveno even delves below ground, highlighting the network of caves beneath the Driftless Area. In the summer of 2020, reading Faliveno and returning to Dillon provided much needed nostalgia and comfort as well. On my first reading of Tomboyland, I took a photo of this memory laden passage and texted it to my friend:

I was nine or ten when the obsession began. This was the dawn of a strange and inexplicable few years in my small-girl life when I couldn’t be interested in anything without being consumed by it. I was obsessed with the weather like I was obsessed with Pogs and pewter dragons fused to amethyst, with the Beatles and The Kids in the Hall and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS soundtrack. I tore through books about tornadoes, first at the public library and then at the Waldenbooks in the mall, thirty minutes away in Madison, where my mother and I drove on weekends. We spent hours in that tiny chain bookstore, where I snaked from the horror section to the nonfiction aisle, sitting on the floor with a stack of Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine and whatever slick new odes to destruction I could find. 

     Typing this paragraph out causes me to fall in love with it all over again. I’m taken back to my own trips to Waldenbooks with my mom at Tucson Mall. I dabbled in R. L. Stine’s Goosebumps as well but was really all about The Babysitter’s Club. I know Faliveno would have thoughts on that series as well. I remember all of the pewter dragons fused to amethyst at Coach House Gifts and the pleasure of collecting Pogs, even though I was never really sure how to play them. Faliveno’s use of the movie, Twister, as a contrast against the reality of the Midwest and the actual laws of science deepens the nostalgia pleasures and the love we all can have in the pop culture artifacts of our youth. 

I first watched Friday Night Lights with my parents when I was still living at home in Tucson and attending the University of Arizona. There’s a moment early in the controversial second season of FNL when the ever-attractive Tim Riggins says of Buddy Garrity, “He’s not a drunk. I know drunks. He’s just sad.” Tim helps Buddy into bed after a drunken appearance at a football team barbeque that was supposed to be held at Buddy’s car dealership and instead got held at a Texas ranch featuring a trophy room full of taxidermied mounts. This is real Texas. The sadness of Buddy Garrity, persistent team booster and wheeler and dealer of Dillon, Texas, is inherently relatable. 
     Faliveno first watched Twister in 1996, when she was thirteen years old. She immediately establishes her devotion to the film by saying that she saw it twice in theaters and she wore out her VHS copy, watching it until “the picture on our tube TV began to wobble and wave like it did during a storm.” Then come the facts: box office ($500 million), constant play on the USA Network, and Roger Ebert’s review. But none of that really matters, because Faliveno loved it and is still committed to it twenty years later. She admits the ridiculousness, while also calling out her favorite scenes. Some of these scenes are the same ones I remember. “Bill and Jo strapped to a pipe in the middle of a pasture, swinging in the wind in the dead center of an F5 and miraculously surviving.” Faliveno also gets my favorite thing about the film: Helen Hunt’s Jo. “Jo was smart, but she was also unstable; she was wild and willfull and reckless … She was a woman who ran directly into the storm, despite the desperate protestations of the men in her crew, who banged her fists against the chest of a man who wanted to protect her—from harm, from nature, from herself.” As a kid first watching Twister on the big screen, I wanted to be like Jo. Faliveno gets that. 

The second season of Friday Night Lights gets slammed by hardcore fans of the show for how gonzo the writers went, but I respect it for those same reasons. The season is most infamous for a murder storyline. Geeky Landry Clark, newly minted Dillon Panther (played by Jesse Plemons, his FNL work led to playing a psycho on Breaking Bad) takes a pole to Tyra’s attacker and hits him to death. Tyra is played by Adrianne Palicki, who at one time was in the running to become Wonder Woman. She’s tall, blonde, and verging on heroic. Landry’s own father comes to Applebee’s, gets Tyra as a server, and asks what she sees in him. He’s a cop too and begins to suspect it’s not Landry’s All-American good looks. Landry and Tyra dump the body in a river along with the inscribed watch that Landry’s grandfather gave him. They know the murder will be tied back to them. Friday Night Lights was supposed to be a wholesome small-town story about local football gods, not a murder suspense tale, but this was the season when anything could go, including a tornado. The most notable scene of “There Goes the Neighborhood,” the episode that includes the tornado, is that the weather event leads to Julie, daughter of Coach Taylor, getting to take shelter inside a grocery store with Tim Riggins, by far the hottest football player of them all. Riggins helps her get through the storm just fine. I may have wanted to be Jo from Twister running recklessly into the storm but taking shelter with Tim Riggins also held a lot of appeal. 
     It wasn’t until my second reading of “The Finger of God” that I started to appreciate what Faliveno does with the interviews of the people who survived the tornado that hit Barneveld, Wisconsin. Most powerfully, she interviews a mother whose son died in the tornado. For each interview, Faliveno describes where the conversation takes place, “Sue and I are sitting at a family restaurant in Mount Horeb. It’s after lunch on a weekday, so the place is empty. We take a booth by the window. I order iced tea and Sue gets a water.” The details of the interviews remind me of my own meals in midwestern small town restaurants. The interviews also serve to remind Faliveno of her own family members, illuminating the people that shaped her life.
     In the end, Coach Taylor and several of the Dillon Panthers leave Texas. Opportunities take them elsewhere, bigger cities, new adventures. Faliveno ends up in New York City asking her landlord if she could have access to the basement in case of tornadoes. Down to the last page of “The Finger of God,” Faliveno continues to inspire my memories. This time for the monsoon storms of my own youth in Tucson. She gets the enjoyment and excitement of weather, as well as the potential destruction. “It turns out, people who grew up on the coasts—those who don’t call March through July tornado season—don’t share the same thrilling fear that haunts me each spring.”  Faliveno, Landry Clark, and myself all left our hometowns, but we still look for the ticket back that an old favorite movie or a nostalgia infused essay offers. 


Pamela Pierce is the Digital Scholarship & Repository Librarian at Oregon Health & Science University. "Livin' Like Jagger: The Hardcore Life of a Digitizing Librarian" was published in RBM: A Journal of Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Cultural Heritage. She grew up in Tucson when people still hung out at malls. Park [Place?] Mall was her primary mall and Tucson Mall was saved for special occasions. She left her hometown and now lives in Portland, Oregon. 

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