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.)
"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.