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The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam Hardcover – March 6, 2007

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. 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. (Mar.)
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“Powerful. . .eloquent and in-depth. . . 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.”–The Washington Post Book World

“Bissell comes at the subject with a fresh perspective. . .a probing and poignant look at the complicated legacy of war—and often quite funny to boot."–New York

“A triumph. . .vivid and commanding. . .adventurous in structure, urgent in content.”–The Seattle Times

“A fresh and comprehensive look at the Vietnam era. . .The reader desperately wishes to look away from the heatbreaking barrative of death and destruction, but Bissell’s powerful writing forces one to open one’s eyes and take in the enormity of the moral abyss.”–The San Francisco Chronicle

“Ambitious. . .Bissell writes with conviction and his prose. . .has moments of startling beauty.”–The New Yorker

“There is something fresh–and often raw, funny and enlightening–in [Bissell’s] take on this well-parsed topic.”–Time Out New York

“Beautifully written. . .Tom Bissell is superb. His description of today’s Vietnam are breathtaking and deep, written with a novelist’s flair of giving life to the inanimate and the obscure.”–Los Angeles Times

“A fine combination of travel narrative and a terse, research-based history of the war’s perverse aspects. . .combines precise description with mordant humor.”–Time Out Chicago

“So well written it leaves the reader breathless.”–Tucson Citizen

“Haunting. . .emotionally powerful. . . Combines the virtues of distance and immediacy -- the cool perspective that comes from investigating a war that was pretty much over before the author was born and the searing immediacy of being raised by a troubled veteran of that lost war. . .Supple, complex and a relief from the most recent waves of books about Vietnam. . .Bissell 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."–The New York Times Book Review

“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

“A permanent contribution to the essential literature of America’s catastrophic misadventure in Vietnam. Bissell has brilliantly combined a deep portrait of his conflicted relationship with his warrior father, a fair-minded but shattering account of the war itself, and a vivid travelogue of present-day Vietnam. In every branch of this endeavor, the bravery of Bissell’s engagement, his intelligence, and his uncanny eye for the conclusive detail are on rich display. This is a triumphant piece of work.”
–Norman Rush

“A remarkable story that teaches us new things about the lingering legacy of war and about the power of the human spirit not only to endure but also, through hard-earned love and understanding between a father and his son, to triumph. It is also an exciting and wonderfully nuanced travel memoir that allows the reader surprisingly deep and abiding insights into a culture to which we as Americans are inextricably bound.”
–Bruce Weigl

“Bissell revisits the much-trodden territory of the Vietnam War to offer a fresh perspective: that of the adult children of the war’s veterans… This humorous memoir, travelogue, and accessible history–the author’s most ambitious book–confirms Bissell’s status as a rising star of American literature.”
Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)

“A penetrating look at the Vietnam conflict. . .Bissell delivers a riveting, you-are-there account of the fall of Saigon. . .Big picture politics take second place to the achingly personal in [this] heartfelt book.”–Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 432 pages
  • Publisher: Pantheon; First Edition edition (March 6, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 037542265X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0375422652
  • Product Dimensions: 9.5 x 6.4 x 1.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,128,160 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Please read this book.
K. Douglas Anderson
Still, this book is about a father/son relationship...and how that relationship was forever altered by the War.
Todd Drucker
This talented young writer illuminates humanity in all its horror and grandeur with every subject he tackles.
Amy L. Jenkins

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By The Sanity Inspector on September 22, 2007
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.
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8 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Bookreporter on May 29, 2007
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.
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15 of 22 people found the following review helpful By CBH on March 14, 2007
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.
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6 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Amy L. Jenkins on March 20, 2008
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.
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