BookBrowse Reviews The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell

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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 by Tom Bissell
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2007, 432 pages
    Paperback:
    Mar 2008, 432 pages

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A fascinating work about the American character and about war itself. A moving book about fathers, sons, and the universal desire to understand our parents

This is Bissell's third book following Chasing The Sea, a travelogue through Central Asia recording his disastrous time with the Peace Corp; and a collection of short stories, God Lives in St Petersburg. Having read his earlier books, one might conclude that Bissell has been building himself up to tackle this very big, very personal topic, but actually it seems that the topic caught up with him, triggered by an assignment for GQ magazine that took him and his father to Vietnam to relive his father's wartime experiences - an article now much expanded into book form.

Speaking of the post-war generation, of which he is a part, Bissell writes, "[t]his strange, lost war, simultaneously real and unimaginable, forced us to confront the past before we had any idea of what the past really was. The war made us think theoretically long before we had the vocabulary to do so. Despite its remoteness, the war's aftereffects were inescapably intimate. At every meal Vietnam sat down, invisibly, with our families."

The first section of The Father of All Things is written in the second person singular as Bissell imagines his father's emotions watching the last days of the Vietnam war unfold on TV from his home in small-town Michigan. This section was hard going in places, partially because the second-person narrative took a little getting used to, but primarily because it was unexpected. I thought I was going on a journey with a man and his ex-marine father back to Vietnam, but the first 100 pages were a mish-mash of family recollections alongside an historical account of the fall of Vietnam, with no journey in sight. However, once attuned to the writing style, which slides back and forth between Bissell's family story and a narrative of the war, I began to understand and appreciate Bissell's three-pronged approach, that offers a history of the war, an exploration of the American character and a moving father-son tale - all in one volume.

The second and largest section of the book moves back and forth between the history of the Vietnam War and the two men's travels through modern-day Vietnam, leaving few historical stones unturned - from the unbelievable incompetence of most of the American politicians, to the searing personal stories about the men, women and children on both sides of the firing line.

Tacked on to the end is a third short section, titled "The Children of the War Speak", which records short personal accounts of adults who grew up during or shortly after the end of the war.

The Father of All Things is an angry, heartfelt, deeply personal, sometimes darkly funny book that explores the war that shattered Bissell's father and in turn ruptured their family. Although occasionally overly-digressive, this is a powerful book that is likely to add value to those who are very familiar with the period, through reading about it, living through it, or both; and be especially enlightening to those who open its pages with little prior knowledge.

Suggested Reading.
The bibliography for The Father of All Things runs to 14 pages but, conveniently, in 2006 Bissell wrote an article for Salon.com in which he details his recommended reading list about Vietnam, summarized below:

  • Michael Herr's 1977 memoir Dispatches: "A nearly perfect synthesis of war reportage and lysergic impressionism."
  • Neil L. Jamieson's Understanding Vietnam: "The rare book that seemingly everyone who cares about Vietnam recommends without reservation."
  • Neil Sheehan's A Bright Shining Lie: "The best book to read about the American side of the Vietnam War."
  • Bao Ninh's The Sorrow of War: "A dreamlike and terrifying novel about a North Vietnamese soldier, originally published in Vietnamese in 1991."
  • Andrew X. Pham's 1999 travel narrative Catfish and Mandala: "An excellent books about modern Vietnam."
  • Robert Templer's Shadows and Wind: "A happily opinionated and frequently striking survey of contemporary Vietnam's cultural."
  • Dana Sachs The House on Dream Street: "Sachs' portrait of a rapidly changing Vietnam is as gorgeously homely as pond-dotted and tree-filled Hanoi itself".

This review was originally published in March 2007, and has been updated for the March 2008 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.



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