While the country of Vietnam is one of the book's main characters, Bissell's father, John, is surely its hero. Through the portraiture of his son, John Bissell emerges as a tormented yet loving father and a kind, complicated man. Watching as he confronts his past in Vietnam is perhaps the most compelling aspect of this story. At the book's end he seems to make peace with his past, and the trip has clearly deepened the relationship between father and son. Bissell the son, on the other hand, occasionally comes off as coarse and thoughtless. In one instance, when conversing with his father, he refers to his father's veteran friends who have only bad feelings toward Vietnam and no desire to return (a fairly understandable sentiment, one would think), as "'Assholes. Small-town, ignorant . . ." These uncompassionate flashes are starkly—and puzzlingly—at odds with the sensitive writer who leads the reader through the rest of the book; one hopes they are only part of an affected persona.
Ultimately, Bissell is not just examining his relationship with his father and the war that made his father who he is. The Father of All Things is also a cautionary tale. All comparisons between Vietnam and Iraq aside, Bissell's subtextual goal is to raise the question of whether a new generation of children will emerge from the current state of world affairs and have to struggle in much the same way as the author did to understand their parents. These are issues all age groups should grapple with, together, and we should be thankful Bissell has opened this dialogue.
Aaron Shulman is a freelance writer and aspiring novelist. He currently lives and works in an orphanage in Guatemala.