Virtually anyone alive during the Vietnam War will acknowledge its impact on American politics and society and, if honest, themselves. Yet as Danielle Trussoni’s memoir, Falling Through the Earth, demonstrates, there are persons not alive then for whom the war became an intimate part of their lives.
Trussoni’s father, Dan, was a “tunnel rat” in Vietnam. He was among those “two parts stubborn, one part insane” men who ventured into and searched the mazes of tunnels the Viet Cong used to hide, transfer men and material, and as a base of operations. Dan Trussoni was wounded both physically and emotionally in that task. Danielle and her family suffered the effects of the latter wounds.
Dan Trussoni engages in serial affairs following his marriage after the war. Combined with his drinking and temperament, it leads to divorce from Danielle’s mom. Although life would be more normal and stable, Danielle doesn’t join her brother and sister in staying with Mom. Instead, she decides to live with her father. From the outset, it is clear it isn’t just the similarity in names that makes her her father’s daughter. They are “we,” standing together against the rest of the world. “[W]e were on the run,” she says in the opening sentence. “We’d been picked up twice for drunk driving that year. …. We tried to keep a low profile, but the cops knew our truck and where we lived[.]”
That is just a sample of the father who makes up half of a dysfunctional unit. This is a father who has no compunction about taking his young daughter to Roscoe’s, his local tavern of choice, and having her sit at the bar with him while he drinks and engages in brawls. This is a father who lets his daughter fall asleep to the sounds of him making love to the series of women he brings home from the bars. This is a father who, when he finally slips a Hallmark card under her door, writes on it, “If it doesn’t kill you, it will make you strong.”
The memoir takes us back and forth to before and after the divorce, various stages in her life and her own trip to Vietnam at age 24. Trussoni punctuates early passages with the language of battle to illustrate how the war remained alive in her own life. Moonlight “cluster-bombed” the walls in her home. Sunlight “strafed” the bars over a window in her hotel in Vietnam, creating a “barrage” comprised of “the colors of explosion.”
The tumult stems in part from the fact her father “always went back to the war alone.” Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, he did not want to talk about his experiences or emotions. Instead, it came out in his actions and personality. As a result, Vietnam became “an amorphous monster” that permeated Trussoni life in La Crosse, Wisc.
It came to live in our house, eat dinner at our table, sleep in our beds. It trailed me home from school; it lapped at my heels as I walked to Roscoe’s. It was an elusive yet inescapable thing skulking through my life, a Jack-the-Ripper presence that hid in alleyways and in the sewers, waiting to get me alone. We could ignore it, but it would not go away. If we managed to shake it, it would track us down, hungry for more. Although there was no way for me, as a child, to understand this presence, I knew, when I saw my father’s sadness, that he had never really left Vietnam.
As things eventually worsen between father and daughter over the years, Danielle decides to go to Vietnam to try to understand why her father never left there. She tours and even enters tunnels like those he explored and in which his friends died. She describes various encounters there with an ominous man in sunglasses who seems to keep following her. Is he a figment of her imagination or a physical embodiment of the Jack-the-Ripper presence the war became in her life?
If Falling Through the Earth has a problem, it may be more in timing than style or content. Coming on the heels of the uproar over James Frey’s memoirs and litigation over Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors, a reader may wonder how much literary license is taken in recounting the story. While Trussoni notes that she has attempted to reproduce her father’s Vietnam stories “as accurately as possible,” considerable parts of the book and incidents in it stem from her pre-teen years.
Yet memory — the foundation of any memoir — is like life. It is not and can not be an exact science. The combination of the emotional struggle between a father and daughter too much alike and the continuing repercussions of a father’s war makes this a compelling and passionate work about war and memory and their impact on life.