Buried inside Tom Bissell's impassioned and bloated (or, as he might say, ''abdomenous'') memoir, The Father of All Things, is a poignant magazine-length story about an idealistic writer and his ex-Marine father traveling through Vietnam. It illuminates (or, as he might say, ''illumes'') the horrors of war, ''the scorching trip through the vortex by which an entire generation was third-degree burned,'' and the scars it left on the country, as well as on the older man. As they wander from Hue to Danang, father and son perceive a chasm between their worldviews that would be unbridgeable but for their abiding affection.
Bissell actually began with a magazine assignment: to record a trip to Vietnam with his veteran dad. But once Bissell got that red-hot ''vortex'' in his sights, he burst beyond his original Harper's word count and produced an intermittently engrossing, ardent, and speculative book with opinions on everything from the Soviet Union's role in the conflict to the roots of the My Lai massacre. When his dad doesn't pony up a tale of getting woefully drunk at the fall of Saigon, Bissell goes ahead and imagines a 25-page scene.
Meanwhile, Bissell Sr.'s actual remarks (''So this is where I lived all those horrible months'') get lost in a blizzard of his son's prose. A terrific writer with an eccentric vocabulary and dark wit, Bissell Jr. lacks only a feel for the proper dimensions of the short, personal story he had to tell. B