2007.03.30: March 30, 2007: Headlines: Figures: COS - Uzbekistan: Writing - Uzbekistan: Vietnam: Fathers: Bloomberg: Craig Seligman writes: Marine Vet Returns to Vietnam With Nosy Journalist Son in Tow

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Uzbekistan: Special Report: Uzbekistan RPCV and Author Tom Bissell: Tom Bissell: Newest Stories: 2007.03.30: March 30, 2007: Headlines: Figures: COS - Uzbekistan: Writing - Uzbekistan: Vietnam: Fathers: Bloomberg: Craig Seligman writes: Marine Vet Returns to Vietnam With Nosy Journalist Son in Tow

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Craig Seligman writes: Marine Vet Returns to Vietnam With Nosy Journalist Son in Tow

Craig Seligman writes: Marine Vet Returns to Vietnam With Nosy Journalist Son in Tow

Throughout the book you're uncomfortably aware -- Bissell makes you aware -- that a wrenching experience for the father is a feather in the son's professional cap. Relentlessly, almost maniacally, he keeps prodding his dad, who saw friends die in the war and was badly wounded himself, for a reaction; he's like one of those TV newscasters who rush to disaster scenes in order to collar relatives of the victims and shout, ``How do you feel?'' Author Tom Bissell served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan.

Craig Seligman writes: Marine Vet Returns to Vietnam With Nosy Journalist Son in Tow

Marine Vet Returns to Vietnam With Nosy Journalist Son in Tow

By Craig Seligman

March 30 (Bloomberg) -- Tom Bissell and his GQ editor were at dinner batting around ideas for a story, he recounts at one point in ``The Father of All Things.'' After several duds they hit on a Vietnam angle: What if Bissell toured the country with his father, a Marine officer who'd seen action there?

The article never made it into GQ (it would be interesting to know why), but the idea was fertile enough to produce a book that is beautifully commensurate with Bissell's skills.

He's not the kind of writer who edits himself. He notes that there are more than 30,000 books on Vietnam in print, and he seems eager to inform us about every one of them. Since he's read carefully and writes with authority, ``The Father of All Things'' is packed with information, not to mention strong opinions, about the country and the war.

He doesn't edit himself emotionally, either. He confesses, ``I am terrible with money, weep over nothing and typically feel before I think.'' And what he feels he can't wait to get down on the page, even if (especially if) it's something embarrassing.

Throughout the book you're uncomfortably aware -- Bissell makes you aware -- that a wrenching experience for the father is a feather in the son's professional cap. Relentlessly, almost maniacally, he keeps prodding his dad, who saw friends die in the war and was badly wounded himself, for a reaction; he's like one of those TV newscasters who rush to disaster scenes in order to collar relatives of the victims and shout, ``How do you feel?''

Silence Is Golden

His father tells him pointedly that what he really enjoys when they're together is a ``nice comfortable silence,'' and Bissell admits that ``the more I questioned him the less he was able to contemplate his experience here.'' But the questions keep coming. ``Do you think,'' the son demands at the end, ``that this trip was cathartic for you?'' The phrasing is so crass that you flinch.

This built-in creepiness would sink a lesser writer. Bissell, though, seems to be shaping his own genre. His last nonfiction book, ``Chasing the Sea'' (2003), about Uzbekistan, had the same eccentric blend of travelogue, history and histrionic self-revelation. I found it both exhausting and hard to put down, which is exactly how I found ``The Father of All Things,'' only harder.

The book starts with a tour de force: a series of chapters that re-create the fall of Saigon alternating with ones chronicling simultaneous events in the Bissell household, where the parents' marriage was cracking apart. It's impressive -- occasionally spectacular -- but also self-conscious. So is Bissell's love of odd words (a group of Western tourists he spots in Hue are ``red-faced and abdomenous''), but the words are almost always the right ones.

Talent for Rhetoric

Moreover, he has what seems like a natural feel for the rise and fall of rhetorical periods. I'm tempted to say he should slow down, learn to distill and pay more attention to his sentences, which can be a little sloppy. But then some writers are Flaubert, others are Balzac.

I don't know for certain that he writes fast (though it doesn't seem like such a wild guess about someone who at 33 has already produced four books and a thick stack of magazine articles), but the prose feels that way: intoxicated and almost desperate, as though the creditors were banging at the door. Yet it's this energy that sweeps you up, and, despite my niggling, I wouldn't want to counsel him to put the brakes on that.

``The Father of All Things: A Marine, His Son and the Legacy of Vietnam'' is published by Pantheon (407 pages, $25).

(Craig Seligman is the New York book critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer of this story: Craig Seligman at cseligman@bloomberg.net .




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Headlines: March, 2007; RPCV Tom Bissell (Uzbekistan); Figures; Peace Corps Uzbekistan; Directory of Uzbekistan RPCVs; Messages and Announcements for Uzbekistan RPCVs; Writing - Uzbekistan; Viet Nam; Fathers





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