Excerpt from The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Father of All Things

A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam

by Tom Bissell

The Father of All Things
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2008, 432 pages

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Chapter One: The Fall

The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained.
—EXODUS 14:28

I

It would have been spring. The neighborhood yards still yellow and concrete hard, the side panels of the cars you pass on the way home from work spattered with arcing crusts of road salt, the big oaks and elms that loom along Lake Shore Drive throwing down long pale rows of shadow. These trees are covered with stony gray bark, their naked branches black lightning against a deepening indigo sky. Everywhere winter’s grim spell still holds.

A Midwestern spring at the Forty-sixth Parallel is a different sort of season than the spring one finds even five degrees lower, in Milwaukee, say, or Chicago. In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula spring never truly arrives. It passes through for a few weeks, shrinks and smoothens the filthy fringes of snow that sit packed against the curbs, finishes with a fine icy sheen the misshapen islets of snow out in the yard that stubbornly refuse to melt, but spring does not arrive. It does not come. One receives only the suggestion of spring here, followed by a hot, windy summer. You are thinking of this as you circle around your huge yard (which takes up half the block), noting its lumpy archipelago of remaining snow, before finally pulling into the driveway. There is something exhausted about the way your station wagon’s engine sputters and dies. For a moment you sit there in the car looking at the remaining mounds of snow. On bright days, when the sunlight angles down on the ice crystals just right, the reflection can be difficult to look at. But on this cloudy late afternoon there is but little light. Your eyes ache anyway, the silvery imminence of evening hovering above you. Where is spring? you think, now standing in your driveway, gazing upon your house, its coldly reflective windows, its closed doors. Today you have left work early and driven the long way home. It is 5 p.m. on April 29, 1975.


The lights come on in the empty kitchen. You keep your hand on the circular plastic knob, fiddling with and turning the adjustor. Darker, lighter, darker. You cannot find the proper setting, going from break-room bright to dinner-party mild to opium-den dim at the speed of light. But what is the speed of darkness? The cabinetry is all chocolaty wood, the countertops a hard Formica blaze of orange, a room that seems dark even when it is blazingly illumed. At last (fuck it) you switch off the overhead light, the sound of your own heart more audible while you stand in charcoal shadow.

You stare at the kitchen table. Two ashtrays, one on each end of the table, form twin pyres of your wife Muff’s lipsticked butts. An empty baby bottle, its sides still cloudy with clinging breast milk. A tall red, white, and blue can of Budweiser, its top-popped aperture keyhole-shaped. You know it is urine warm and half full before you even touch it. Your live-in younger brother Paul’s, no doubt. (Muff claims to see Paul only when he is “drunk, sleeping, or hung over.” He is twenty-four. What can you do?) The lazy Susan and its cargo of gift-shop jetsam, souvenirs from trips you no longer remember: expensive glass salt and pepper shakers Muff had to have, the floral-patterned porcelain sugar dish, the toothpick holder shaped like a rotund little monk, the plastic tray freighted with a yellow slab of room-temperature margarine. A neatly planed pile of mail awaits you on the table’s corner. All of it adding up to life, one little corner in a seven-year repository of marriage. You do not even look through the mail.

When I asked you what this time was like, you said only, “I was a young guy, working hard. Always pissed off. Always.” You were a trust officer at the First National Bank, managing other people’s money. They save up here in the woods. From the millionaire widows living in fireplace-heated homes to the couples sitting on $700,000 portfolios while driving rusty Ford pickups, you were learning all about the strange camouflage and various neuroses of rural wealth. What made many of your customers’ mattress stuffing so frustrating was that you were broke. Every morning that you parked your used Chevy station wagon beside your boss’s long cream Cadillac reminded you of this. The Bissells, of course, were reputed around town to have money—how faces in Escanaba changed when the name Bissell came flying back at them!—but over the last seven years you had watched it all go up in the low fires of your various new responsibilities.

Excerpted from The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell Copyright © 2007 by Tom Bissell. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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