The Father of All Things (Hardcover)

A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam

By Tom Bissell

Pantheon, 9780375422652, 432pp.

Publication Date: March 6, 2007



In April 1975, as Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army, John Bissell, a former Marine officer living in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, was glued to his television. Struggling to save his marriage, raise his sons, and live with his memories of the war in Vietnam, Bissell found himself racked with anguish and horror as his country abandoned a cause for which so many of his friends had died.

Opening with a gripping account of the chaotic and brutal last month of the war, The Father of All Things is Tom Bissell’s powerful reckoning with the Vietnam War and its impact on his father, his country, and Vietnam itself. Through him we learn what it was like to grow up with a gruff but oddly tender veteran father who would wake his children in the middle of the night when the memories got too painful. Bissell also explores the many debates about the war, from whether it was winnable to Ho Chi Minh’s motivations to why America’s leaders lied so often. Above all, he shows how the war has continued to influence American views on foreign policy more than thirty years later.

At the heart of this book is John and Tom Bissell’s unforgettable journey back to Vietnam. As they travel the country and talk to Vietnamese veterans, we relive the war as John Bissell experienced it, visit the site of his near-fatal wounding, and hear him explain how Vietnam shaped him and so many of his generation.

This is the first major book about the war by an author who grew up after the fall of Saigon. It is a fascinating, all-too-relevant work about the American character–and about war itself. It is also a wise and moving book about fathers, sons, and the universal desire to understand who our parents were before they became our parents.

Praise For The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son, and the Legacy of Vietnam

“Powerful. . .eloquent and in-depth. . . The Father of All Things is a one-of-a-kind accomplishment that provides ample evidence of the long-lasting impact of the Vietnam War among the families of the 2.8 million Americans who took part in it.”–The Washington Post Book World

“Bissell comes at the subject with a fresh perspective. . .a probing and poignant look at the complicated legacy of war—and often quite funny to boot."–New York

“A triumph. . .vivid and commanding. . .adventurous in structure, urgent in content.”–The Seattle Times

“A fresh and comprehensive look at the Vietnam era. . .The reader desperately wishes to look away from the heatbreaking barrative of death and destruction, but Bissell’s powerful writing forces one to open one’s eyes and take in the enormity of the moral abyss.”–The San Francisco Chronicle

“Ambitious. . .Bissell writes with conviction and his prose. . .has moments of startling beauty.”–The New Yorker

“There is something fresh–and often raw, funny and enlightening–in [Bissell’s] take on this well-parsed topic.”–Time Out New York

“Beautifully written. . .Tom Bissell is superb. His description of today’s Vietnam are breathtaking and deep, written with a novelist’s flair of giving life to the inanimate and the obscure.”–Los Angeles Times

“A fine combination of travel narrative and a terse, research-based history of the war’s perverse aspects. . .combines precise description with mordant humor.”–Time Out Chicago

“So well written it leaves the reader breathless.”–Tucson Citizen

“Haunting. . .emotionally powerful. . . Combines the virtues of distance and immediacy -- the cool perspective that comes from investigating a war that was pretty much over before the author was born and the searing immediacy of being raised by a troubled veteran of that lost war. . .Supple, complex and a relief from the most recent waves of books about Vietnam. . .Bissell brings a luminous prose style and, perhaps more important, a clear, fresh eye to events that many of us have allowed to slip into the infuriatingly painful past."–The New York Times Book Review

“In this touching, sometimes comic portrayal of a son’s struggles to understand and cope with a father’s dark experiences in Vietnam, Tom Bissell’s maturing talents are on full display. He shows that wars never end, not only for the warriors but also for their children.”
–Philip Caputo

“A permanent contribution to the essential literature of America’s catastrophic misadventure in Vietnam. Bissell has brilliantly combined a deep portrait of his conflicted relationship with his warrior father, a fair-minded but shattering account of the war itself, and a vivid travelogue of present-day Vietnam. In every branch of this endeavor, the bravery of Bissell’s engagement, his intelligence, and his uncanny eye for the conclusive detail are on rich display. This is a triumphant piece of work.”
–Norman Rush

“A remarkable story that teaches us new things about the lingering legacy of war and about the power of the human spirit not only to endure but also, through hard-earned love and understanding between a father and his son, to triumph. It is also an exciting and wonderfully nuanced travel memoir that allows the reader surprisingly deep and abiding insights into a culture to which we as Americans are inextricably bound.”
–Bruce Weigl

“Bissell revisits the much-trodden territory of the Vietnam War to offer a fresh perspective: that of the adult children of the war’s veterans… This humorous memoir, travelogue, and accessible history–the author’s most ambitious book–confirms Bissell’s status as a rising star of American literature.”
Publisher’s Weekly (starred review)

“A penetrating look at the Vietnam conflict. . .Bissell delivers a riveting, you-are-there account of the fall of Saigon. . .Big picture politics take second place to the achingly personal in [this] heartfelt book.”–Kirkus Reviews (starred review)