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
    Mar 2008, 432 pages

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Broke. Such a hard, simple, declarative word. You dreamed of making $20,000 a year, three times and more your current salary. Twenty thousand dollars: the number itself was talismanic, as beautiful as a finish line. It would bandage these seven years of hemorrhaging marital wounds and keep them stanched forever. Because now things were not well. “Your mother,” you told me once, without bitterness, “wanted a better life.” Everything at this time felt to you cold and dead, as though your touch itself were warmth-draining, death-contagious. Every room of the house was dark and angry that spring, unwarmed and unloved, but there were few places for blame to gather. Nor was there any place to hide.

You walk through your family’s ancestral seven-bedroom house looking for your wife and sons, a journey of several minutes. To many visitors, the Bissell house, one of Escanaba’s biggest, always felt less like a home than a series of pastel caverns linked by massively arched throughways. You drift through the canary-wallpapered dining room (the chandelier so huge and gaudy it was vaguely embarrassing to pass beneath it), the green-carpeted living room (most of its antique furniture having not known human weight in years), and pass into the final and most spacious—the television room. The Bissell house’s placement on the littoral edge of town allows the television room’s four massive bay windows to look out onto Ludington Park, beyond which spans the seascape tundra of still-frozen Lake Michigan. Today the lake is a surface storm of twirling snow devils. As expected, here you find Muff and your sons. Your little sister Alicia is upstairs, in her room, listening to the Monkees (she still refuses to acknowledge that they did not play their instruments), while your brother Paul, you can guess, is out with friends, most likely attached to a keg hose.

Muff is watching television with your son Johno, who at five resembles nothing so much as a pudgy, thin-haired Buddha. Muff looks beautiful, of course. How could she not? She once bested her classmate Farrah Fawcett in a junior high beauty contest in Corpus Christi, Texas. The hair your wife has bleached platinum blond every week for the last decade achieves gravity-defying proportions, a hair-spray skyscraper. She wears slightly too much powder blue eye shadow that is carefully matched to the color of her thin turtleneck sweater. She holds Johno on her knee, lightly bouncing him—though he is too big for this—her long hard white fingernails mildly alarming whenever she pushes his hair across his forehead. She looks at you and nods hello, already expecting the worst.

At the room’s far edge, across a bay of orange carpet, almost swallowed by her recliner, Aunt Grace sits knitting. She is white-haired and thick-calved, wearing big nunnish brown shoes, a solid blue dress, and a red shawl so tasseled and incomplete-looking your initial thought is that she is knitting it upon her own shoulders. You know that amid the needles’ steady clicking Grace is waiting for the inevitable flare of discord between you and Muff, whereupon she will quietly stand to leave and, later in the evening, offer neutral comfort to you both. With age comes wisdom: the sort of bromide one hears all the time, even as less and less clear evidence seems to support it. Grace is welcome proof that—at least sometimes, in some people—with age comes wisdom. But Grace is not much help with what vexes you today. Her own husband, Herb, died of a heart attack in his forties, still wracked by the horrors of World War I’s battlefields. Herb never spoke of the war to Grace, and thus, in your mind, she never truly knew the man she loved. War, then. Always war. In regard to the war, your war, you could very much use some human wisdom right now. You are thirty-three years old, and the events of the last few weeks have not made much sense. Or rather, the events have made sense, but nothing else has.

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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