Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The Father of All Things by Tom Bissell

What promises to be a memoir of a father, his son, and the legacy of the Vietnam War falls short on all counts in Tom Bissell’s The Father of All Things. Bissell’s father was a Marine officer in Vietnam and together the two travel back to the country where they travel the countryside, talk to other veterans, and relive the war. Yet the book failed to resonate in an emotional way, something surprising since Bissell did such a good job making his travels in Uzbekistan meaningful in Chasing the Sea.

The first section of the book intersperses a second-person narrative of what Bissell’s father was going through around the time of the fall of Saigon in 1974 along with a blow-by-blow account of the evacuation of the embassy. The pacing of the mass exodus from Vietnam is rendered in a way to make a real impact; such a complex and detailed historical narrative seems a bit out of place within a so-called memoir about the effects of Vietnam on a father and son. The imbalance is likely what makes this so hard to reconcile: the evacuation of the embassy outweighs the narrative on Bissell’s father by a factor of at least three to one.

The second and most substantial portion of Bissell’s book takes a broader view of history, though it too is interspersed with the travels of the author and his father in the country. The historical accounts are done within the context of the travel narrative, for example the section dealing with My Lai is placed as the father and son visit the area, yet again the history seems to overshadow the relationship between the two travelers. Bissell seems to be more interested in providing history than in actually describing the effects of the journey on his father or demonstrating how his father’s experiences in Vietnam affected the way he was raised. It’s not that these issues aren’t addressed, just that they aren’t given enough depth to prove truly interesting or make one feel as though he/she is not just reading an actual history book.

The brief third section provides an account of over a dozen grown children whose fathers were in the war, fighting for the NLA (North), AVRN (South) or the US. In these twenty or so pages, more emotion is rendered than in the previous 350. Though not quite long enough to provide true richness, these snapshots of the children’s views of their fathers was stirring, perhaps more so to me for my father also served in Vietnam.

I suppose that the true problem with this book is that it reads like a bloated magazine piece, which is what it started out to be. I am a big fan of Bissell’s work, but what seemed an ideal read for someone in my position (roughly the same age as Bissell with a veteran father), ultimately was disappointing and failed to provide any illumination on what effect Vietnam had on not just the relationship between the author and his father, but between a larger population of veteran fathers and their sons.

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