Falling Through The Earth, by Danielle Trussoni

The Vietcong and me: daughterly devotion in the Midwest boondocks
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The Independent Culture

Danny Trussoni had one of the hardest jobs in Vietnam. Arriving at the height of the 1968 Tet Offensive - the most concerted anti-American assault - he volunteered to work the tunnels of the "Iron Triangle". Between them, the Vietcong and North Vietnam Army had constructed 400km of underground passages within striking distance of Saigon. With little training, Trussoni's task was to climb down into this network, kill any enemy, and rescue such Americans as were being held captive.

The tunnels were pitch-black and booby-trapped, and at the end of each might be a communist ready to blow your brains out. Though some fellow-grunts did not, Trussoni survived the ordeal, but only just. He came back home to Wisconsin physically and psychologically damaged; 35 years later, a post-traumatic stress disorder report gave him a high "symptom severity" score.

Falling Through the Earth, written by his daughter, is not about the war so much as its long-term impact on one lower middle-class American family. "Warmth was a sign of weakness," Danielle Trussoni recalls. "My father had made it clear that only the weak needed other people." Yet he kept the skull of a slain Vietcong as a prized trophy.

The result is Midwest machismo run savagely amok. A builder, Trussoni is a compulsive womaniser who, post-Vietnam, spends his free time hanging out with war buddies, then cracks up when his wife abandons him, taking two of their three kids with her. For better or for worse, Danielle sticks by her dad, whom she loves, fears and unconsciously emulates. By the time she is 15 she is taking acid, shoplifting and already embarking on sex with local misfits.

It's an oddly disturbing tale, the claustrophobia of small-town Wisconsin mirroring the greater claustrophobia of the Vietnam tunnels. The latter Danielle Trussoni visits for herself, but only after (against her father's wishes) she has been through college. Wisely, she avoids blaming Vietnam for everything. Her father might just have turned out bad anyway, as Danielle might have had a troubled adolescence.

And that's what made me like this beautifully pointed book. There is a fine intelligence about it that eschews the glib. For all that, in the best tradition of Yankee-Italian sentimentality, the author contrives a reconciliation with both parents in the home straight. The vignettes of boondocks mindlessness offered before are too sharp to be cast aside.