Review by John Freeman
The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam
The Vietnam War has inspired countless memoirs, novels, journalistic dispatches and 1,000-page histories. But in recent years, a new type of narrative has arisen from that war’s loamy, grave-littered soil: the reckoning of the soldier’s offspring.
Last year, Danielle Trussoni published her astonishing Falling Through the Earth, which told of growing up in the shadow of her father’s war. This year, Tom Bissell has added The Father of All Things, an anguished attempt to make sense of the war’s legacy in his family life, four decades later.
The book revolves around a trip the author took to Vietnam in 2003 with his father, a veteran who saw combat in the mid-'60s. Growing up on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Bissell describes always being locked out of his father’s experience in Vietnam. He remembers his father’s drinking, the black clouds of rage and regret, forces he always blamed for his parents’ divorce.
Traveling back to Vietnam with his father is supposed to wipe all these shadows away, shed light on the unlit, unlock the secrets surrounding the war his father never talked about. Maybe even help Bissell understand where he comes from. But it only partly succeeds.
Bissell’s father engages with the past, but almost never in the same way his son does. While the father frets over flora and fauna, his son is flabbergasted by his acceptance of war’s brutality. Standing by a giant toxic crater left by a B-52’s bomb, the father marvels and says, “And that’s what they do,” prompting his son to reply irately: “Jesus, Dad. ‘That’s what they do?’”
The Father of All Things tries mightily to bridge this profound difference in perspective—the father used to the savagery of war, the son shattered by it. The father has the experience; Bissell is simply the observer, who with each page becomes increasingly aware of the limits of what observation alone can do.
Thankfully, this is not the only mode of understanding The Father of All Things applies to the war. Bissell has educated himself on Vietnam, and this book digests and respins these tales into a capsule history of the country and the American war there, beginning with the fall of Saigon and working backwards to the very early days of American involvement and beyond.
Mr. Bissell is a terrific prose stylist—nervy, metaphor-mad. He takes nothing for granted. So even though this portion of The Father of All Things is drawn from the pages of well-known books, there’s an urgency and freshness to some its retelling—especially sections about the My Lai massacre and its aftermath.
But it’s not always easy to follow. Mr. Bissell has chopped up the history section so it corresponds with the travel itinerary he and his father followed. Just when you get comfortable, the book fractures yet again to square a new location with a new node of Vietnamese history. This aptly represents the disorder of real-life travel, but part of the travel journalist’s job is to meditate that chaos.
Then there is the ritualism of the whole exercise—revisiting, re-enacting as a way of understanding. In one late scene, Bissell and his father go to a shooting range, where Bissell decides to shoot an AK-47 at paper tigers. He squeezes off a few eardrum-shattering rounds. “Now imagine,” his father says, “that twenty guys are firing back at you, and people everywhere are screaming.”
What’s so heartbreaking about this book then—which clearly proceeds out of a profound and tangible fatherly love—is that even when Bissell travels all the way around the world to make sense of his father’s war, he leaves Vietnam without answers. Thanks to their trip, he has a few more stories, a few more specifics. There are heartbreaking scenes, for example, of his father meeting Vietnam veterans from the other side. But there is a part of his father that will remain as mysterious and unfathomable as the dense green forests he briefly called home.
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