You Know When the Men Are Gone
On the back cover of You Know When the Men Are Gone, whoever it is who creates such marketing copy writes: “There is an army of women waiting for their men to return to Fort Hood, Texas. As Siobhan Fallon shows in this collection of loosely interconnected short stories, each woman deals with her husband’s absence differently. . . . In gripping, no-nonsense stories that will leave you shaken, Siobhan Fallon allows you into a world tightly guarded by gates and wire. It is a place where men and women cling to the families they have created as the stress of war threatens to pull them apart.”
In writing this, the publicist attempts to project an aura of importance to these stories, and to convey that they are an insider’s work, one that will allow us to understand in a new way the realities of war on the soldiers and their families who must fight and endure it. As such, the publicist completely undersells the volume.
You Know When the Men Are Gone is so much more.
The world that is tightly guarded by gates and wire is not so much Fort Hood, the Green Zone of Iraq, or anything that the Army can create or control, but it is, instead, the inner world of the men, women, and children whose lives are shaped by the military.
As such, the material that Fallon presents deserves special attention not because it has been wrapped in the flag, but because in her brief collection of eight stories, Fallon reminds us of what Salinger once managed to do with just six. These stories give us a new cadence in reading them and a new understanding, not only of the characters and their lives, but also of short fiction and of what it uniquely can accomplish.
The stories in this volume are, quite frankly, extraordinary. Not because they tell us about the war or the soldiers who fight the war or the families they come home to, but because they tell us the truth—the deep, emotional truth of the lives of those who populate the stories.
Because Fallon seeks first the full reality of her characters’ lives and reveals that reality in prose that is at once terse and resonant and then places it within the context of the Gordian knot of military life (something she writes about from first-hand experience), the resulting collection of short stories exceeds any expectation that the reader might have had upon studying the back cover copy for insight or inspiration.
To be succinct: You Know When the Men Are Gone is the explosive sort of literary triumph that appears only every few years. As such, it should not be missed.
Each story presents a variation of a theme: the roles that soldiers (male and female) and their mates (male and female) must play, both on-base and in-deployment. We are made privy to the subtle control that the military plays even over the most seemingly unimportant aspects of life—how long the grass may grow in the front yard, for example—and the greater role that the military families themselves play in each other’s lives, most especially when, as the title indicates, the men have gone. We are taken, at once, into the battlefield far away and into the minefield here at home.
Great care has been taken in the arrangement of the stories, so that each builds upon the others, with some characters reoccurring. As such the stories as a whole remind the reader of the days before iTunes, the days of vinyl, when songs were organized into albums in a manner in which the resulting total concept exceeded the sum of the individual component parts.
So it is here. While not all stories reach the same level of skill and impact—Fallon does, sadly, from time to time fall back into the MFA-ish formula for Modern Fiction, instead or relying upon her own gifts as a storyteller—cumulatively speaking, it is difficult to take issue with such an artful result.
Take for example “Leave,” a high-concept short story in which Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash manages to sneak home on leave from Iraq, to break in to his own house through the basement window (“How many times had he warned his wife to lock the window?” Fallon writes, “It didn’t matter how often he told her about Richard Ramirez, the Night Stalker, who had gained access to his victims through open basement windows.”) and to hide there, day after day, listening to every sound in the house, to every movement up above, all because he had, while in combat, received a single, simple email from a friend: “Stopped by to see Trish. Mark Rodell was there. Just thought you should know.”
With this poison churning away in his gut, Nick hides in the basement all night and prowls through the house all day, taking a sip of milk here, a slice of bread there, never enough to be noticed so that he can either prove or disprove to himself his wife’s infidelity.
Without disclosing too much, the reader can only say that, upon facing the final sentences and the heavy-handed metaphor and Fallon’s choice to be oblique when being concrete would have been so, so much better makes the reader wish that he could have visited her MFA class the day she read it out loud to all assembled, so that he could have said, “Siobhan, you are so very talented, but do you really think you are doing justice to your story with this ending?”
But that is just to quibble. And all negative quibbles fall away when faced with writing as moving, as clarifying and as powerful as this, Fallon’s description, for the story “Inside the Break,” of the moment in which the men are suddenly gone:
“It was fine to look this horrible now that the men were too far away to see their faces, fine to finally grieve, messy and ugly. Crying in public offered a strangely satisfying relief. Most of them had been through this before, the goodbye, the long deployment, the jubilant return, and they cried now as much for themselves and the lonely years ahead as they did for the men heading off to the dangers of war. Even the most stoic women, the three German wives, standing next to each other as always, though of the diapers they would be single-handedly changing for three hundred and sixty-five days, the dogs to walk and goldfish to flush, the garbage to take out, the anniversaries they would be celebrating without their mates, and they pushed Kleenex against their noses as desperately as the youngest, most sensitive spouses.”
You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon: not to be missed.