Sunday, August 03, 2008

FALLING THROUGH THE EARTH: A Memoir by Danielle Trussoni

A Memoir by Danielle Trussoni
Henry Holt and Company, LLC
New York, NY 10010
Copyright 2006
Pages = 240

“Memoir is, for better and often for worse, the genre of our times…..there is no faster way to smother the core meaning of a life, its elusive threads and connections, than with the heavy blanket of narrated event…..”
Sven Birkits
The Art of Time in Memoir
Then, Again

Birkits is only suggesting that we now have a compulsion to write about the events of our own lives, seemingly like never before, and that a straight linear narrative of these events is rather bland and pointless. I happen to agree, drawn myself to memoir as a way of trying to expiate, redeem and capture something about what I’ve moved through and what’s moved through me. So it was that I encountered this extraordinary memoir by a young Italian-American woman from Wisconsin called, “Falling through the Earth.” Relieved that it wasn’t a story about drug rehab, or serial killing or a shop-a-holic chick, I was eager to dive into a memoir about a father-daughter bond overshadowed, or even pre-determined in this case, by his participation in the Vietnam War. In one sense it is a “coming of age” story, but unusual because it’s the father-daughter, not the mother-daughter alliance/wound reckoned with.

Danielle Trussoni is practically my contemporary, growing up in the 1970’s, after her father has returned from active duty in Vietnam. After an incredibly tough childhood, spent mostly with her Dad in a dive bar in the boonies of the mid-west called Roscoe’s, she manages to graduate from the University of Wisconsin and then to attend the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Through it all, her father’s ghost haunts her – his toughness, his broken heart, his humor and his mad denial of what the war actually did to him and his family. Danielle, who her father Dan calls, “Danielle-my-belle” as they find bar stools next to each other, remains under his spell through a divorce, through many abusive and neglectful emotional episodes, and finally through an adolescent stint living with him in a shack-like house on the shady South Side of her town, La Crosse. She hones her brilliant mind, which remains a bedrock of sanity and observation, toward flashing light on the wreckage through which she grew, like the Japanese root Kudzu, up through rock to sweeten the earth with her wisdom and generosity and story-telling.

Rather than give us the David Copperfield version of life, the, And then, and then that Birkits rather dislikes, she refracts our attention, leaping from turning point to turning point, with a parallel story of herself visiting Vietnam to understand her father’s journey for perspective on “the other side” and the present there. We have the young Danielle’s growing up in a quickly disintegrating childhood nuclear family where once a stalwart and loving father planted three trees on a place called, “Trussoni Court” for his three children, two girls and a boy. The mother is loving, practical and seemingly capable of dealing with all her husband’s bravado and alcohol abuse. One day Danielle finds a notebook in which her mother has marked, like a bar graph, how much she feels she’s loved by her husband and three children. While her son Matt and daughter Kelly score high marks, Danielle is chagrined to find that she and her father share a mediocre 4 on the scale. Gradually, her father’s womanizing and temper drive her mother to simply edge away from the family and seek autonomy by getting a job and a college degree. The house falls into disrepair and disorganization as Dad is incapable of much but working as a laborer and then hiding away at his local bar. Danielle’s mother divorces him and marries another man-- safer, more prosperous and more “normal.”

Danielle is the daughter who serves as her father’s protective shield, his charm. She is also his main confidante about what happened in Vietnam, where he was drafted after an angry ex-girlfriend turned his name into the draft-board. One day Danielle finds a skull that her father has brought home as a talisman or prize for his own dubious valor in carrying out the bloody agenda of the U.S. government. A stocky and hard-headed Italian from a big family of boys, with a handsome face and devil-may-care attitude, Trussoni falls in with a platoon whose main soldier-leader chooses to be what’s known as a tunnel rat. This gig involves braving the Viet Cong constructed underworld of tunnels and rooms where they go ingeniously to escape U.S. bombing raids and Agent Orange. Obviously, there’s not much to cover your back when you’re many feet under the earth. As it happens, Trussoni’s best buddy and partner in this undertaking is a man named Goodman, who ultimately, takes an AK-40 bullet explosion to his head, instead of Trussoni whose turn it was to flash a light and go down himself. He will later pay a visit to Goodman’s family and explain what happened. They are grateful. He begins to see what the brutality of the war meant. It is almost too late, as he has cancer of the esophagus and his daughter has finally told him what he did by his denial to the family.
For this, she is granted no mercy but her own realization is worth her father’s punishing silence.

The book never falls to melodrama and it moves with an unusually humane love-bond which takes Danielle through many changes but keeps her a fair and honest witness to the family’s and her own story.

In one comically black humor scene, Danielle, finds herself alone with her traumatized, lonely father, even though custody after the divorce was given to the mother. Danielle still feels she’s the outsider with Dad. He stocks the pantry with his cold-cuts and beer. She takes to wearing fishnets and an old trench coat, finally finding a lover in another Italian high schooler who likes high-speed sledding and seems super-cool. When caught in the love-making act, her father is with his new girlfriend Debbie, an alcoholic ditz who winds up pouring tequila shots for the four of them, while Danielle offers biting responses to her father’s intrusive questions. He’s been balling every trashy middle-aged woman from Roscoe’s since the divorce and Danielle’s been left alone most of the time to fend for herself. The dialogue goes something like this:

“Dad sized up Tony. He said, ‘You sit down too, Romeo.”

Tony said, “I really have to get going.”

“What?” Dad said, pretending to be offended. Can’t have a drink with your girlfriends’ old man?”

In the end, the two lovers are separated, not by this busting, but because Danielle’s father puts her to work under-age at as dishwasher/ busboy, which eventually leads to her economic independence. It is, in fact, her mother’s Deus ex machine like return to teach Danielle to drive at 16, that finally makes her realize the real value of her mother and the love they share. It actually gives her back a lost piece of her own feminine sanity.

While visiting Vietnam, in her mid-20s, Danielle falls in with a married couple from the same hotel. She is strangely shadowed by an American in dark sunglasses who seems to know who she is, or who her father was, but this is never clearly resolved – a small weakness in the book. Though the tunnels have become museum pieces, Danielle still goes down into one, kissing the earth and insects of her father’s captivity. She tries to dig up some earth and the tour guide stops her. In another turning point, after her hotel room is almost broken into by the mysterious stalker, Danielle walks out of her zone into another part of Saigon where she finds a Buddhist temple and winds up praying for the spirits of the dead. It is the one time that she seems to find a sanctuary for reconciliation and forgiveness in a country still showcasing their victory over America, but also still impoverished and strangely based on a tourist principle of luring Americans back to see the war-sites.

This is an engrossing and masterfully composed account of a young woman’s tough love for a half-mad Dad whose fate has been irrevocably twisted by the Vietnam War and his own stalwart and addictive bent. It manages to jump-cut in time while etching vivid details in dialogue and description of what really happened, how it unravels, and then sort of ravels back together in a new way.

As Shawn Colvin sings on “Steady On:” “China gets broken, and it will never be the same. Boats on the ocean, find a way back again.”

So it is with Danielle Trussoni, who like Marguerite Duras, escapes a collapsed family to become a brilliant writer, using old ghosts to meet her own destiny with light and hope.

Lo Galluccio’s prose-poem memoir “Sarasota VII” will be released on Cervena Barva Press in the fall of 2008. She is also a vocal artist and poet.

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