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The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnamby Tom Bissell
Synopses & Reviews
In April 1975, as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army, John Bissell, a former Marine officer living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, was glued to his television. Struggling to save his marriage, raise his sons, and live with his memories of the war in Vietnam, Bissell found himself racked with anguish and horror as his country abandoned a cause for which so many of his friends had died.
Opening with a gripping account of the chaotic and brutal last month of the war, The Father of All Things is Tom Bissell's powerful reckoning with the Vietnam War and its impact on his father, his country, and Vietnam itself. Through him we learn what it was like to grow up with a gruff but oddly tender veteran father who would wake his children in the middle of the night when the memories got too painful. Bissell also explores the many debates about the war, from whether it was winnable to Ho Chi Minh's motivations to why America's leaders lied so often. Above all, he shows how the war has continued to influence American views on foreign policy more than thirty years later.
At the heart of this book is John and Tom Bissell's unforgettable journey back to Vietnam. As they travel the country and talk to Vietnamese veterans, we relive the war as John Bissell experienced it, visit the site of his near-fatal wounding, and hear him explain how Vietnam shaped him and so many of his generation.
This is the first major book about the war by an author who grew up after the fall of Saigon. It is a fascinating, all-too-relevant work about the American character — and about war itself. It is also a wise and moving book about fathers, sons, and the universal desire to understand who our parents were before they became our parents.
"In his fourth book, journalist and fiction writer Bissell (Chasing the Sea) revisits the much-trodden territory of the Vietnam War to offer a fresh perspective: that of the adult children of the war's veterans. On assignment for GQ magazine, Bissell and his ex-Marine father, John, retrace the elder Bissell's tour of duty through a now mostly peaceful and prosperous Vietnam. The first of the book's three sections narrates the historical leadup to Saigon's fall in 1975, spliced with Bissell's imagined vision of his family on the night Saigon fell (his parents' marriage was rapidly collapsing due to John's postwar trauma and alcoholism). Next comes an exhaustively researched history of the war — including a harrowing retelling of the My Lai massacre, during which civilians were brutally murdered by crazed American soldiers — within the narrative of the father-son trip, aided by Truong and Hien, their entertaining and illuminating Vietnamese tour guides. As Bissell repeatedly presses his father to confess regrets about Vietnam, the two push toward an ambivalent sense of closure on national and personal wounds. A final, less effective, section gathers testimonials from American and Vietnamese veterans' children. This humorous memoir, travelogue and accessible history — the author's most ambitious book — confirms Bissell's status as a rising star of American literature." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Recent years have brought an avalanche of first-person memoirs from veterans of the Vietnam War. But what we hadn't seen, until very recently, were sons and daughters of those veterans offering their own insights on the war's continuing personal and political legacies. Nowcomes Tom Bissell's 'The Father of All Things,' a powerful and unusual take on the war, his father and their often... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) turbulent relationship. How unusual? No other book in the enormous Vietnam canon combines a modern Vietnam travelogue, a history of the war and a rumination on its fallout in the psyches of a father and son. Former Marine Capt. John Bissell fought in Vietnam in 1965-66. His hazardous tour of duty has haunted him ever since, and he has spent decades trying to come to grips with it. Since childhood, Tom Bissell also has been affected by his father's wartime experiences. John Bissell's particular case of postwar emotional trauma included alcohol abuse, a turbulent marriage (and divorce), and obsessive rantings to his young sons about the life-and-death decisions he was forced to make in Vietnam. 'While growing up, I had associated nearly everything about my father with the Marine Corps and Vietnam,' Tom Bissell writes. 'This strange, lost war, simultaneously real and unimaginable, forced (children of Vietnam veterans) 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.' Born in 1974, after his father returned from Vietnam, Tom Bissell graduated from Michigan State, served in the Peace Corps in Uzbekistan and went on to travel the globe and to carve out a notable literary career. A previous book, 'God Lives in St. Petersburg,' brought him a Rome fellowship from the American Academy of Letters. Throughout his life, Bissell says, it sometimes 'felt as though Vietnam was all my father and I had ever talked about; sometimes it felt as though we had never really talked about it.' Bissell remedies that failure in his well-crafted book, the heart of which is his account of the life-changing trip he and his father made to Vietnam in 2003. 'I was almost thirty years old, my father just past sixty,' Bissell writes. 'It staggered me, suddenly, how little relative time we still had left together. I knew that if I wanted to find the unknown part of my father I would have to do it soon, in Vietnam, where he had been made and unmade, killed and resurrected.' Bissell goes on to write eloquently about what happened on the trip. He also provides a surprisingly in-depth look at the history of the war and offers thoughtful assessments on just about every aspect of the conflict, from Gen. William Westmoreland's incompetent leadership to the abilities of the largely 'corrupt, spineless, and endlessly inept' South Vietnamese military and political leadership. 'The Father of All Things' is a one-of-a-kind accomplishment that provides ample evidence of the long-lasting impact of the Vietnam War among the families of the 2.8 million Americans who took part in it. Wars, in general, Tom Bissell says, wound 'everyone right down the line. Take the 58,000 American soldiers lost in Vietnam and multiply by four, five, six — and only then does one begin to realize the damage this war had done.' Marc Leepson is book editor and columnist for the VVA Veteran, the newspaper published by the Vietnam Veterans of America." Reviewed by Marc Leepson, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"Bissell delivers a riveting, you-are-there account of the fall of Saigon — not just the dust-kicking helicopters and hands poking through embassy gates, but the behind-the-scenes activities of the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Henry Kissinger." Kirkus Reviews
"A permanent contribution to the essential literature of America's catastrophic misadventure in Vietnam....This is a triumphant piece of work." Norman Rush
"In this touching, sometimes comic portrayal of a son's struggles to understand and cope with a father's dark experiences in Vietnam, Tom Bissell's maturing talents are on full display. He shows that wars never end, not only for the warriors but also for their children." Philip Caputo
"Bissell's prose can veer from skeweringly exact to over-the-top. Still, his keen desire to know the story behind his father's service in Vietnam lends the book an energy that makes it compelling." Seattle Times
"Bissell...brings more than just a 'lifetime of thinking' about Vietnam to his task. He also brings a luminous prose style and, perhaps more important, a clear, fresh eye to events that many of us have allowed to slip into the infuriatingly painful past." New York Times
"Given the volume of history and the breadth of the travel writing, there are times when the book seems to pay insufficient attention to the father-son relationship. But their exchanges are always memorable." Los Angeles Times
Acclaimed author Bissell recounts his journey to Vietnam with his veteran father in this haunting and luminous book as they travel the country together and reflect on the war experience, both from someone who was there and from the son who grew up in its wake.
About the Author
Tom Bissell is the author of Chasing the Sea and God Lives in St. Petersburg, and a contributing editor for Harper's Magazine and The Virginia Quarterly Review. In 2006 he was awarded the Rome Fellowship by the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and his work has been selected several times by the "Best American Short Stories," "Best American Travel Writing," and "Best American Science Writing" series. He lives in Rome.
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