May 2007

Sarah Statz

nonfiction

The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam by Tom Bissell

One of my reading habits is to bookmark any page that contains beautiful writing, or that I want to re-read later, or which seems to me to sum up all that is glorious (or, in sadder cases, all that is lousy) about the book I’m reading. After reading Tom Bissell’s memoir/history/travelogue The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam, I found I had stuffed the book so full of these temporary markers that they proved almost as useful as a textbook in which an undergraduate has highlighted every sentence. It would, in fact, have been easier to mark pages I didn’t want to re-read later.
 
As has been discussed in many other reviews, including the Washington Post’s, Bissell’s story is unique not only in that it is a memoir of the Vietnam War written by the child of a veteran (rather than by a veteran himself), but also in that it combines a wealth of historical detail and a travel narrative in which the author and his father, John Bissell, tour Vietnam nearly forty years after the elder Bissell’s tour of duty there ended in 1966. The book opens with Bissell’s attempt to re-create and understand his father’s stateside reaction to the 1975 fall of Saigon, interspersed with a concisely written and horrifically detailed history of that event; the bulk of the book finds the author recounting his and his father’s 2003 journey through modern Vietnam, combined with more historical recounting of political and military maneuvers, as well as a discussion of the My Lai (Son My) massacre; a final and brief section offers short reflections from other children (on both sides of the conflict) of Vietnam War veterans. To say that Bissell has written and combined these three fairly disparate sections and styles with great skill minimizes his achievement: to write a readable memoir, or work of history, or travel piece is hard. To combine all three and to make it look so easy is almost unseemly in a writer in his early thirties (who has also written a well-received travel book, Chasing the Sea, and an award-winning collection of short fiction titled God Lives in St. Petersburg). 
 
The historical accounts in the book are perhaps the easiest to address. Bissell does his reading homework and cites the facts: “On President Ford’s order, the evacuation of Saigon was implemented at 10:25 a.m. local time. The choppers were supposed to have begun arriving in Saigon one hour after Ford’s order. But on the U.S. ships awaiting orders in the South China Sea there was berthing confusion. Many of the Marines assigned to certain details found they were not berthed on the same ships as the helicopters in which they were intended to fly to Saigon.” Likewise, his recounting of his and his father’s journey through Vietnam profits from his skills with both description and metaphor: “It was impressed upon us that a trip to Vietnam was not a trip to Vietnam without Hue, we had to see Hue. So now we ate in one of Hue’s many small French-style cafes, sitting on wicker chairs covered with plush red cushions, our table draped with a velvety red tablecloth, large frondy plants lurking in every corner, while Jimmy Buffett’s ‘Cheeseburger in Paradise’ played at a low but nevertheless unacceptable volume… My eyes ached. The little sleep I had managed to get had been like slipping a grit-lined pillowcase over my brain.” 
 
But the sadness and the glory of the book are contained, primarily, in the relationship and conversations between Bissell and his father. This is a memoir of a sometimes frustrated son expressing love for his father by recognizing that his war experience, regardless of what anyone thinks of it politically, both shaped him personally and affected their entire family. It is the memoir of two men conversing and trying to understand or at least make some sort of truce with one another and the way things are. It is a memoir which contains this type of personal honesty: “Soon Hien [one of their Vietnamese tour guides] was no longer leading us. Instead he seemed pleased simply to stand amid the astonishments of such a storied place. It was clear he was proud of it, and I envied the closeness he felt to his culture. Even at an American site as splendid as the Lincoln Memorial, say, it would not have occurred to me to be proud of my culture. Why was that? I wondered aloud to my father. ‘Because you’re an ungrateful little prick,’ he answered.” 
 
In the end it is a memoir of war, told by a man who wasn’t born until after his father returned from fighting it. But it is also a story that is bigger than any one man and his son, as Bissell himself indicates in the preface: “What any war’s igniters rarely admit are the small, terrible truths that have held firm for every war ever fought, no matter how necessary or avoidable: This will be horrible, and whatever happens will scar us for decades to come.”   
 
The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam, by Tom Bissell
Pantheon
ISBN-13: 978-0-375-42265-2
448 pages