You Know When the Men are Gone Review
Broken relationships, cheating husbands, and children acting out make up the grist of any good story. You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon has plenty of that and more all centered around Fort Hood Army base.
When I picked up Fallon’s debut collection of eight short stories, I quickly put it down to read another day. I feel bad about war. It’s sad and it sucks the life out of those it touches mentally and physically. Do I feel good about our soldiers putting their lives in jeopardy? Do I need a reminder of the precipice of mass destruction we sit on that could easily blow us up in the blink of an eye? Do I want to read about mangled bodies, relationships and families? As it turns out, I do.
The fact that this book about war was written by a woman made me pick it up again and I am so glad I did. Fallon pulls back the curtain on an aspect of the war that’s not often exposed. She writes about the families of those who serve: the wives of the men who deploy, the husbands who serve and the children caught in the crossfire. And she writes from experience. She is married to an Army officer who has deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan. She knows her subject intimately and it shows when she gives us a peek into the small details of everyday life of the military family.
In one story, Meg Brady becomes obsessed with her next door neighbor’s life and listens through the paper thin walls to her comings and goings day after day while she waits for her husband to return from his tour of duty. There’s Ellen Roddy battling cancer and trying to understand what is happening to her young children who are acting out. Her husband was supposed to deploy but stayed to help manage the family while she manages her illness. Carla Wolenski struggles to cope with her husband when he returns from duty full of anger and almost a stranger to her.
Fallon also gives us the flip side when she writes from the male perspective of an injured soldier coming home to a wife who has decided to deploy to another life that does not include him. Another is of a soldier, Moge, who finds himself attracted to the female Iraqi interpreter in his unit and who realizes he doesn’t want to leave his men to return home.
Fallon does a superb job of relaying the whirlwind of activity that goes into motion when a soldier deploys, when he comes home, or when he dies – detailing all the rituals of their lives that become the glue holding it all together. All eight stories are loosely connected and so the protagonist in one might be a supporting character in another which gives it cohesiveness that builds familiarity and makes it read like a novel.
I found myself wanting more and I think any of these stories could make a great full-length novel. You know it’s good when it leaves you wondering about the characters long after you finish the story. Fallon doesn’t aggrandize the lives and no moral judgments are made on whether war is right or wrong. It just is. I wish we lived in a world without war, but until we do we are lucky to have an author like Fallon who can help explain it to us.
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2011