[Pantheon; 2011]

by Martina McLennan

“Write what you know.” As clichés for aspiring writers go, this one must be nearing the top, spawning several generations of just-out-of-college novels and tell-all memoirs (often good, but also plentiful). Fortunately, debut author Siobhan Fallon, whose absorbing collection of linked short stories, You Know When The Men Are Gone, is based on her own observances as an army wife at Fort Hood.

It doesn’t hurt that the subject is both compelling in its own right — a true negative of mainstream American society — and one that most Americans know very little about despite plenty  “Support the Troops” ribbon magnets and two foreign wars. The interrelated stories are more than just a polemic on the heavy sacrifices that military families have made during the past decade- it’s also a wonderful exercise in good  storytelling.

With a deft feel for characterization and pacing, Fallon’s tales carve out a subtle lesson on the psychological impacts of war, even — or especially — as experienced from halfway around the world. The domestic lives of the collection’s military families frequently echo patterns of warfare.  A young wife obsessively eavesdrops on the foreigner next door; a cancer-afflicted mother skips a critical doctor’s appointment to go to battle with her 14-year-old daughter; an officer uses his mid-tour leave to lead a one-man reconnaissance mission in his own home. Even when you’ve left the war, you can’t escape it.

The stories come to ambiguous resolutions as Fallon resists any urge to tie things up neatly. The closest she ever comes is the title story, in which a previously distracted young wife welcomes her husband back “knowing suddenly, and without a doubt that he was, and would always be, worth the wait.” This would all be well and good, were it not for the two strange children standing by, abandoned (or were they?) by their nervous Eastern European trophy mother. We don’t find out what will become of these little blonde strays, but it’s safe to bet that their fate will be neither simple nor easy. As with most watering-down of wartime challenges, such as the chirpy army manuals that instruct returning husbands, “Take time to be charming!”, black and white solutions seem laughable in the purgatory-like setting of Fort Hood. If there is any morality tale to be found in You Know When the Men Are Gone — and you’d have to search deep to find one — it is that nothing is simple in a world of half-empty lives, no matter how noble their purpose. In “Leave”, Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash, suspicious his wife is having an affair, uses his military leave to break into his own house as a spy. Hidden among stuffed animals and children’s books, he finds himself meditating on a copy of the Brothers Grimm:

That was life. The motherless Hansel and Gretel, starving and lost in the forest, arriving at the cannibal witch’s ginger bread cottage. The little mermaid rescuing her prince from the stormy sea, only to watch him fall in love with the woman he mistakenly thinks saved him from drowning. The young army corporal, a mere three days from going home to his wife and newborn, hit by a sniper. Such vicious twists dealt to the undeserving.

As it goes, Nick’s wife is having an affair. Whether he is deserving or undeserving, who knows. Whether or not it would fully constitute a “vicious twist” for him to slit the throats of her and her lover, as he stands contemplating at the end, is unclear. But what he does know is this: in the uncertain world of modern warfare, it’s better to know a true thing absolutely than to know nothing at all.


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