Although journalist Tom Bissell was only an infant when South Vietnam finally fell to the communists in 1975, the war that culminated in that event has cast a particularly tenacious shadow across his family and his own psyche. Bissell's father was wounded in Vietnam and after leaving the service in 1967, watched in disgust as politics and ineptitude sullied the blood that he and his comrades had spilled there. As Bissell sees it, the injuries the war inflicted on his father had a lot to do with his parents divorcing when he was only three years old.
In an effort to better understand his father and the war, Bissell constructs parallel histories of each. The first part of The Father of All Things imagines his father's mood and actions at home the day Saigon fell. On April 29, 1975, my father was losing something of himself. . . . This was the certainty that what he had suffered in Vietnam was necessary. Interspersing these agonizing scenes are well documented, near photographic accounts of how Saigon and the U.S. Embassy in particular were overrun. In the second and longest section of the book, Bissell describes the journey he and his father made through Vietnam in 2003. Alongside this personal chronicle, he lays out the stages of that country's turbulent evolution and assesses what it has become today.
Bissell's obvious adoration for his father is balanced nicely by his ongoing annoyance at the older man's caginess and unpredictability. While there are many revealing moments between the two, there is no epiphany that cleanses everything. The father's sense of self will forever be shaped by his war experiences, but now the son can feel that he's shared in them, however minimally.
All this ruminating about the tentacles of the past might have become intolerably grave or dreary. But Bissell's wandering and deliciously wicked eye keeps this from happening. Still, war is always a horror story. And as Bissell strives to put the ghosts of Vietnam to rest, one can see the ghosts of Iraq arising behind another generation. Edward Morris reviews from Nashville.