Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The True Heart of the Military: You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

Like police, firefighters, and Hollywood A-list actors, members of the military and their families belong to a closed community unto itself, one with its own rules, impenetrable language, and a culture that, when viewed from outside, can look like a private joke shared between two smirking pranksters leaving you to shake your head and say, "I don't get it."  If you've never been on the inside, never served in the military, then you're understandably baffled by the tight circle of the Buzz-Cut and Camouflaged Club.  But if (like me, my wife and our three children) you have served and were baptized in the Church of Unending Uncertainty and schooled at Hard-Knock University, then you know what I'm talking about when I say there are at least three constant truths about military life:
1)  You can't "leave the job at the office"
2)  You learn to make friends quickly (or not at all) before you're whisked away to another duty assignment
3)  You should never shop for groceries at the commissary on paydays

As the wife of an Army officer, Siobhan Fallon knows these maxims all too well and she has deftly spun her experiences into fiction in the remarkable collection You Know When the Men Are Gone.  These eight short stories focus on the homefront during a time of war, but they're not the cozy, frou-frou tales of a left-behind wife who fills her lonely hours baking cakes and gossiping at coffee klatches, nor are they the wildly-exaggerated soap operas of Lifetime's Army Wives series.  This is life as it really happens.  Fallon penetrates to the hard realities of military home-life with finely-observed detail.

Though the urban battleground of Baghdad figures prominently here, most of the stories of You Know When the Men Are Gone are set stateside at Fort Hood, Texas--the sprawling Army base where Fallon herself rode out the loneliness of her husband's two Middle East deployments.  The setting inside the walls of the fort is as brazenly bland as a soldier's high-and-tight haircut.  Fallon writes: "Fort Hood, like most army bases, has stern-faced offices with tiny windows, square apartment buildings and barracks with their crooked air conditioners and metal stairways, everything industrial in the ugliest way, with few architectural flourishes or decoration."

When the 18,000 soldiers of the First Cavalry Division depart for Iraq, the place is transformed "from a world dominated by camouflage uniforms to one of brightly colored baby carriages and diaper bags, Mommy & Me meetings at the First Cavalry Museum, women on pastel picnic blankets lounging on the parade field and sharing cinnamon rolls."

It's here that the dramas of on-edge families play out.  All Quiet on the Western Front may have put us in the trenches, but You Know When the Men Are Gone takes us to a place where fiction rarely ventures: the paper-thin walls of military housing through which you can hear babies burp, chairs scrape on kitchen floors, and wives sob in the days after the husband leaves.  As Fallon notes in the second paragraph of the title story, the silence is deafening:
No more boots stomping above, no more football games turned up too high, and, best of all, no more front doors slamming before dawn as they trudge out for their early formation, sneakers on metal stairs, cars starting, shouts to the windows above to throw down their gloves on cold desert mornings. Babies still cry, telephones ring. Saturday morning cartoons screech, but without the men, there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life.

If Fallon was merely an accurate chronicler of the military's domestic side, then You Know When the Men Are Gone would be little more than a literary curiosity to read and forget within a year's time.  Thankfully, this is fiction than transcends novelty and explores the universal themes of love, jealousy, anger and loyalty--you know, the kind of emotions which wrack everyone, whether or not they've ever worn a battle-dress uniform.  In these stories, people try too hard, or they don't try enough; lovers are stymied by the intermittent static of phone lines between Texas and Iraq; children act out their anger and loneliness by playing hooky from school, leaving a terrified mother to wander the neighborhoods family housing calling their names; wives endure the sickly-sweet platitudes offered by chaplains at the Family Readiness Group meetings.

Even when the action moves over to Baghdad in the expertly-crafted "Camp Liberty," Fallon gets inside the jumbled emotions of a sergeant who finds himself drawn to a female interpreter while feeling increasingly disconnected from his girlfriend back in New York. What man hasn't been caught between two women at one time or another?  The marketplace bombings up the ante and wind the tension even tighter in Fallon's fiction.

Two of the stories neatly mirror each other, showing us the crucial consequences of jealousy and faulty communication between spouses.  In "Inside the Break," a wife hacks into her husband's email and discovers he might be paying intimate attention to a female soldier who deployed with him to Iraq.  The enemy, it turns out, doesn't always wear a heavy coat and hold a suicide-bomb trigger.  In "Leave," it's the opposite situation: a soldier returns from Iraq unannounced when a stateside friend suggests the landscaper may be planting the wrong kind of seeds with his wife.  The soldier breaks into his own home and hides in the basement for more than a week, hoping to catch his wife in flagrante.  The climaxes of both stories are as emotionally damaging as any roadside bomb.

Throughout the book, the images startle and shock as the violence of the battlefield spills back to domestic life.  That violence can pop up in the most unexpected ways.  In the title story, Army wife Meg Brady goes shopping at the commissary after her husband deploys:
She walked the meat aisle, passing her husband's favorites: baby back ribs, pork chops, bacon-wrapped filet mignons. She reached out, touching the cold, bloody meat through the plastic. The raw flesh both horrified and mesmerized, and she wondered if a human being would look the same if packaged by a butcher, the striations of fat, the white bone protruding, the blood thin like water in the folds of the wrap. She wondered if wounds looked like this, purple and livid, but with shrapnel sticking out, dust clinging to the edges, blood in the sand. She quickly put the packaged beef down, telling herself that she would not think such things after Jeremy was home.

Even after the men return (perhaps especially after they return), Fallon shows it's hard for couples to pick through the rubble of emtional devastation.  In the aptly-named "You Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming," Carla Wolenski struggles to understand the erratic behavior of her husband:
....this stranger whose past year was nothing to Carla but fragmented e-mails and phone calls with a three-second delay of overlapping voices and too long silences, waiting for the other to speak, then both starting to speak at the same time.  The hesitation and nervous laughter, the echoes of their own voices like ghosts of what they used to be.

Speaking from personal experience, my wife and I know all too well how those ghosts can haunt a couple during and after a year in the combat zone.  It wasn't until I read You Know When the Men Are Gone that I was able to pinpoint those feelings with such accuracy.

As someone who served 20 years in the Army, I'm asking you to trust me when I say this book is as close to full-immersion baptism in the military's Church of Unending Uncertainty as you're likely to come.  Read Fallon's stories and you'll know what it's really like when the men are gone.


  1. Great review for our lovely Siobhan Fallon. You knew this was a fabulous book when you read it.

    Siobhan placed me back in military housing in Makiminato housing (for enlisted men and families)in Okinawa, Japan. Military wives and mothers experience emotions so different from non military families. We were always on the brink, never secure. We lived for the moment. I treasured every story in this book and could relate to all of them.
    I do miss the commissaries. We regularly ate expired products, at very cheap prices, and did not get sick. Miss the friendship of the other wives. Everyone shared and no one expected anything in return. Wonderful book!!

  2. David,

    Love love love your review of YKWTMAG! I too am a huge fan of this book. Good luck with your novel. You have some very impressive credentials. Your review is excellent and I love your writing.

    BTW - My husband and I lived at Fort Hood from 82-84. Although he was an Air Force fighter pilot, he served with the 6th Cav. Brigade as an ALO. I was the mayor of Patton Park and learned to "speak Army."
    Just found out last night that your youngest son, a butterball Lt., will be headed to Ft. Hood after he graduates from Field Artillery School at Sill. He's pumped. Our family has come full circle.

    Again, a great review. Good luck with your novel.

    Kathleen Rodgers