Blogs > Cliopatria > John Freeman: Vietnam Legacies

Apr 18, 2007 1:23 am


John Freeman: Vietnam Legacies



[John Freeman is president of the National Book Critics Circle.]

The Vietnam War has inspired countless memoirs, novels, journalistic dispatches and 1,000-page histories. But in recent years, a new type of narrative has arisen from that war's loamy, grave-littered soil - the reckoning of the soldier's offspring.
Last year, Danielle Trussoni published her astonishing "Falling Through the Earth," which told of growing up in the shadow of her father's war. This year, Tom Bissell has added "The Father of All Things," an anguished attempt to make sense of the war's legacy in his family life four decades later.

The book revolves around a trip the author took to Vietnam in 2003 with his father, a veteran who saw combat in the mid-1960s. Bissell describes always being locked out of his father's experience in Vietnam. He remembers his father's drinking, the black clouds of rage and regret, forces he blamed for his parents' divorce.

Traveling back to Vietnam with his father is supposed to wipe all these shadows away, shed light on the unlit, unlock the secrets surrounding the war his father never talked about. Maybe even help Bissell understand where he comes from. But it only partly succeeds.

Bissell's father engages with the past, but almost never in the same way that his son does. While the father frets over flora and fauna, his son is flabbergasted by his acceptance of war's brutality. Standing by a giant crater left by a B-52's bomb, the father marvels and says, "And that's what they do," prompting his son to reply irately: "Jesus, Dad. 'That's what they do?"'
"The Father of All Things" tries mightily to bridge this profound difference in perspective - the father used to the savagery of war, the son shattered by it - and to its credit, when the gap won't close, refuses to pretend that it's not there. The father has the experience; Bissell is simply the observer who, with each page, becomes increasingly aware of the limits of what observation alone can do....

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