You Know When the Men Are Gone is a collection of short stories by Siobhan Fallon about this generation of army families and their particular war. The stories take place mostly in Fort Hood, Texas, on the army base, and on the streets of Iraq where the soldiers are deployed.
This book made it onto my must-read list after having read a review on As the Crowe Flies (And Reads!), and then probably on several other blogs. But do you ever have a book that makes it onto your must-read list, and then afterward, you kind of can’t remember why you felt like you really had to read it?
This book is a very quick read, and that’s from someone who is generally not much of a short story type person. These are not The New Yorker style short stories, which are all “Ennui, ennui! Life is such a fucking drag!” At least, that’s how I feel about short stories in The New Yorker. After the first paragraph or so, I usually mumble, “Get over yourself,” and flip to the movie, tv, and book reviews at the end.
Fallon in this collection of stories focuses much more on plot than she does on characterization. This might be the nature of short stories; you don’t get a lot of time to develop your characters in the way you do over the course of a long novel. The stories overlap somewhat because they all focus on the same group of women and soldiers. But they come across as stories about isolated individuals more than they are stories about a community. I don’t know if this was Fallon’s intention. Certainly it must be a lonely thing to be raising children and going on with your life while your husband is deployed in Iraq fighting a war, and that loneliness and isolation definitely come across. But I was struck by the Afterword, in which Fallon seems to emphasize the community of families at Fort Hood. Unlike in, say, Olive Kitteridge, I don’t get any sense of a community of individuals buoying each other up in this book. It’s much more every woman for herself.
There’s an undercurrent of raw emotion in each of the understated stories that I wish Fallon would have tapped into a bit more. In “Leave,” a soldier who suspects his wife of cheating spends his leave hiding in the basement of his own house in order to find out the truth. This story seems to be much more about his experiences as an interrogator in Iraq; he’s in the basement so that for once he can find out the “truth” rather than the maze of lies he encounters in Iraq. The whole time reading the story, all I could think about was the pure rage I would feel as the wife if I discovered that my husband was hiding in our basement rather than spending time with me and his child on his leave. I see all that in the story, but it’s like a faint pencil sketch rather than the rich and fully realized painting it could be. This makes me feel at times like these are the first, and very good, drafts of stories which Fallon could have spent some more time with.
Fallon avoids any political content at all in these stories. This is not a collection of anti-war short stories. Nor is it a kind of social issue piece of fiction, meant to draw attention to the horrors of post traumatic stress disorder or the lives of army wives. It is just about how peoples’ lives can be torn apart by war. And in that, at times it transcends the specific context of the war. In one short story, “You Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming,” there’s a moment between husband and wife that is surely specific to the lives of military families, but also universal to all people trying to forge a life together in the middle of the chaos that is living:
She could lift Mimi from his arms and breast-feed her properly, or she could remain like this, her fingertips on Ted’s pulse, and suddenly it seemed as if this was the most important moment of her life, that either small gesture was larger than any decision she had ever made. Their fate depended on whether Carla walked out of the room with the baby or stood next to her husband. She bit her lip and wondered if this was the sum of a marriage: wordless recriminations or reconciliations, every breath either striving against or toward the other person, each second a decision to exert or abdicate the self.
Yes, exactly. That is exactly what a marriage is. And in moments like these, Fallon’s writing is perfect.
All in all, I agree with Emily at As the Crowe Flies (And Reads!). I think I would have liked a novel made out of this material much more that a collection of short stories. Perhaps I could still read a novel about this material. Perhaps Fallon has a novel in the works. The stories are beautiful, but there’s too much that I wish was there that isn’t.