Tom Bissell preemptively says at the start of his new book, The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam, that there are more than 30,000 books about Vietnam in print. So why does the world need another? Bissell, the author of three previous books, offers a convincing answer to this question in the form of an exuberant amalgam of anecdotal memoir, fact-based imagining, popular history, travel narrative, and interviews with sons and daughters of Vietnamese and American veterans.
The book had its beginnings as an article for Harper's magazine about Bissell's trip to Vietnam with his veteran father (who hadn't been back since his final tour with the Marines), and it's not difficult to see how it grew into a book. Bissell has no shortage of things to say about the history and politics of the Vietnam War, or his sensory impressions of Vietnam today, but the book's core is the story of a father and son struggling to understand each other. "I had become a writer greatly interested in sites of human suffering. And lately it had occurred to me that this might have been my attempt to approximate something of what my father went through," Bissell writes. Viewed in a broader context, The Father of All Things may herald the emergence of an important subgenre of Vietnam literature: the legacy narrative, written by the generation of children who grew up in the shadow of their father's memories and are now eager to explore this experience.
Recalling his boyhood, Bissell writes, "I dreaded those evenings my father had had too much to drink, stole into my bedroom, woke me up, and for an hour at a time would try to explain to me, his 10-year-old son, why the decisions he had made—decisions, he would mercilessly remind himself, that had gotten his best friends killed—were the only decisions he could have made." With all the levels of trauma implicit in this passage, one gets the sense that mixing multiple storytelling approaches—memoir, history, travel writing—wasn't so much a choice as a necessity for Bissell. It provides him with a versatile, many-angled platform from which to examine Vietnam. In this way, form, as much as content, points up the complex legacy that sons and daughters of the Vietnam generation live with.
Channeling his lifelong obsession with the Vietnam War—and mining material from a veritable library of sources—Bissell brings a scholarly intimacy to his retelling of key aspects of the war, buoyed along by an ironic eye and a spunky voice, which enliven historical background that may be familiar to some readers. Here he is satirizing communist propaganda: "The communists had counted on a popular general uprising or, in Communist argot, a Popular General Uprising." And on Ho Chi Minh: "We have a man playful enough to have sent messages to his staff members in the form of paper airplanes and ruthless enough to have [executed friends]."
Bissell is no less spirited in his travel writing. As he and his father crisscross Vietnam in a hired car, arguing and bonding as they visit a succession of landmarks both symbolic and personal, Bissell's prose leaves the reader with vivid impressions, and often a chuckle. On Vietnamese traffic: "In New York City I had come to believe that car horns were one of the more overrated tools of behavior modification—but that, I now knew, was because they were used without any imagination. In Vietnam there was a very real language of horns. A short beep meant: I'm behind you. Two short beeps: I'm passing you. One long beep: F#%! You!" Bissell also has a gimlet-eyed knack for spotlighting the big import of small details, as when he italicizes the fact that the city of Hanoi, once home to Hoa Lo Prison, which was nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton, now has a genuine hotel of that chain "called, naturally, the Hanoi Hilton."
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.
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