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The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam (Vintage Departures) Paperback – 11 Mar 2008

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 16 reviews
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
"Would you stop the car? I'd like your help beating my son." 22 Sept. 2007
By The Sanity Inspector - Published on
Format: Hardcover
This is a searing, honest, and yes, fair account of a young man's reconciliation with his father, against the backdrop of a return to Vietnam.

The dialog Tom records is almost too good to be true, but it's coming out of his tape recorder, so there it is. The elder Bissell comes across as an ordinary, memory-laden senior citizen who happens to once have been a soldier. His drunken implosion, which the author unspools against the fall of Saigon, is a topnotch piece of psychological fiction, but is nothing that the reader catches first-hand from the rest of the book. At times it seems that Tom projects the gook-plinking hophead of media stereotype into his father, but none of that comes out in the dialog. Indeed, at certain points it's the father who has to point out to the son what a bloody horror the war was.

Had Tom been around during the war, he doubtless would have been a protestor. But at this late date, the historical record is in the books. He stitches together quite good second-hand accounts of the fall of South Vietnam, and of the strange career of Ho Chih Minh (though the latter is perhaps somewhat over-basted with "nuance."). An honest fellow, he frequently admits that the North Vietnamese and the NLF were as bad as advertised, and worse than the more conventionally corrupt South. He still refuses to swallow the old wartime lies, though he proposes no way that things could have come out right.

The end of the return tour, with his father raising a toast with a former ARVN his own age, ends the book on a touching and unexpected up note. Mission accomplished.

A fair-use sample:

"A lot of guys I went to basic with died in this place [the Citadel in Hue city]," my father said. "A lot of guys. Guys who joined up again. Guys who kept volunteering. All died right around here." He shook his head.
"Like who?" I asked.
"You don't know them."
"Well, what were their names?"
He looked at me queerly. "What do you care?" This was said with a brusque sort of inquisitiveness, not anger.
I got to my feet. "I'm sorry. You're right. Just morbid curiosity."
My father--the abrupt smile on his face false to anyone who knew him--turned to Hien [the guide]. "What do *you* think?"
Hien regarded his shoes, which looked like small leather noses peeking out from beneath his blue slacks. "I think this is a special place for many people."
My father said nothing and stood there in the wind, amid the grass. When he closed his eyes, it almost looked as though he were listening to someone.
8 of 11 people found the following review helpful
A son on his father's Vietnam service 29 May 2007
By Bookreporter - Published on
Format: Hardcover
It has been a generation since the last American soldier left Vietnam, after almost 15 years of substantial involvement in the fight to defeat the army of North Vietnam and insurgent forces. Some 3 million Americans served, 800,000 of them in combat. The names of more than 58,000 of this country's dead are etched into the stark, granite walls of Washington's Vietnam War Memorial.

In his compelling new book, THE FATHER OF ALL THINGS, journalist Tom Bissell, born in 1974, brings that painful era to life in a rich and emotionally resonant narrative constructed around the trip he took to Vietnam in November 2003 with his father. John Bissell, a Marine combat veteran, arrived in Vietnam in April 1965 and served there until he was wounded in a booby trap explosion in late 1966. Acknowledging the humility that any writer must feel approaching a subject that has been covered in more than 30,000 books, Bissell sets for himself the task of recounting "an emotional experience interwoven with established historical facts of the Vietnam War." It is, he writes, "a book about war's endless legacy."

The book is loosely and somewhat idiosyncratically organized into three sections. The first interweaves an account of the last, desperate days before the fall of Saigon with Bissell's imaginative recreation of his father's dismay as he watches those events unfold in his home in Escanaba, in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. The second, and longest, section poses a handful of queries, such as "Could the United States have won the war in Vietnam?" and "What was the Soviet Union actually attempting to accomplish in Vietnam?" using them as the framework upon which the book's main narrative structure is constructed. The final section, entitled "The Children of the War Speak," contains brief snippets of interviews with Bissell's anonymous contemporaries on all sides of the conflict, reflecting on the ways in which the war's legacy affected them and their families.

Bissell is a gifted writer, whose prose is enriched by a talent for selecting arresting details that will fix the scenes he describes in the mind's eye. In one gripping section near the end of the book he describes the visit he and his father made to Cu Chi, an area that featured an elaborate network of tunnels from which guerrillas launched fiendishly ingenious attacks against American soldiers based there. Another emotionally powerful portion is Bissell's terse recounting of the My Lai massacre in March 1968, which most readers will find chilling in its harrowing detail.

Foregoing any attempt either to glamorize his father's service or to demonize the vast majority of the soldiers who fought there on all sides, Bissell nevertheless portrays his father as a fundamentally decent man, reporting that John Bissell's fellow Marines even nicknamed him "Nice Guy." Like most American soldiers, he was compelled to fight by a sense of duty to his comrades rather than to some at best vaguely understood mission to stop the spread of Communism throughout Southeast Asia. If anything, Bissell is much more judgmental about himself than he is of his father, subtly questioning whether he would have had the courage to do what his father did. One darkly comic scene describing Bissell's attempt to fire an AK-47 at a shooting gallery is likely to have readers wondering the same thing.

The book could have benefited from a map tracing the route of the Bissells' journey, as well as some photographs in addition to the few family snapshots sprinkled throughout the first section. These shortcomings are counterbalanced by a useful bibliography featuring annotations by Bissell on some of the secondary sources he relied upon in this work.

At a time when the United States is embroiled in another unpopular war, the temptation to draw facile parallels with the debacle in Vietnam is almost too great to resist. For the most part, Bissell doesn't succumb to that temptation, perhaps because most thoughtful readers already will find themselves struggling to suppress the echoes of incompetence and bravado from that era that haunt us to this day.

THE FATHER OF ALL THINGS is an intensely personal book that expands outward in concentric circles from the intimate relationship between father and son to the broadest concerns of historical and geopolitical thought. "War is appetitive," Bissell writes. "It devours goodwill, landscape, cultures, mothers, and fathers --- before finally forcing us, the orphans, to pick up the pieces." If this book finds the audience it deserves, it will remind those who lived through that era of the price war exacts, and may help educate those who did not to that grim and timeless reality.

--- Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg
15 of 22 people found the following review helpful
a mysterious chorus of conversation 15 Mar. 2007
By CBH - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The Father of All Things is an amazing book. A critic who complains about "anti-war" prejudice is being a little unfair himself. This book is first and foremost a personal story, and part of the story is the gap in understanding between veterans and their children. If Bissell is not an expert on Vietnamese culture, he is indisputably well-read. I cannot imagine a better educated or more open-minded surrogate for his generation in the conversation between himself and his father. Like it or not, history does not look generously on the Vietnam War.

Bissell's summary of historical figures and events is informative and readable, but the heart of the story is his description of his family and his father and the trip he and his father make together. What history textbook contains lines like, "Ancient thin Vietnamese women with raisiny skin sold cans of Red Bull. Poorer old Vietnamese women sold the local Red Bull knockoff, Super Horse. Even poorer old Vietnamese women sold the Super Horse knockoff, Commando Bear"? Or, heartbreakingly, "You hate solitude until you have drunk past it, drunk until your grief becomes purely, endurably chemical and a mysterious chorus of conversation fills your skull"?

I agree with The New York Times in this case; The Father of All Things is a great book.
6 of 9 people found the following review helpful
An Essential Personal Tour 21 Mar. 2008
By Amy L. Jenkins - Published on
Format: Hardcover
If Tom Bissell wrote a book about the care and storage of Twinkies, I'd buy it. This talented young writer illuminates humanity in all its horror and grandeur with every subject he tackles. And he does this while exploiting his own quirks to humors effect.

In The Father of All Things, Bissell returns to Vietnam with his veteran father. Bissell, guided by his father's first-hand accounts, offers the most lucid description of the salient events of the Vietnam conflict and its major players a reader is apt to find. Unlike a mere history lesson, this book provides a personal tour-- layering the war, the aftermath of a Vietnam vet as a wounded family man, and a time four decades after the fall of Saigon into a compendium of personal insight that illuminates not only screw up that was the war, but the courage of soldiers who did their duty. The honesty in this accord of father and son illuminates the complexity of loving the brave wounded soldiers who do our dirty work. By the end, I loved two Bissell men.
4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
For What it's Worth 28 Feb. 2008
By Clatskanie - Published on
Format: Hardcover
The author has done his homework and created an effective structure for his story. I needed to be taken through My Lai again, but didn't like the journey.

The author's interpretation of history is at least that, an informed reflection. I disagree with some of it, but then I can also write my own book. That he has an informed interpretation of history at all is pretty much a trump card in most American discussions.

While I shouldn't mention it if I will not take the time to provide examples, I will anyway: the writing can sound like a smart boy on his first serious essay.

Often his attitudes on things martial and masculine are comically repellent, reflecting as they do contemporary pieties rather than earned truths. However, is this were my son I'd be proud of the book that he produced.
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