February 2011

Matt Gallagher

fiction

You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon

Nine years of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have severed the military from the greater American society in ways we’re only now beginning to understand. An unforeseen byproduct of the all-volunteer force in a time of protracted conflict, less than one percent of the population has served in uniform, creating a separate warrior caste and leading to questions of shared sacrifice. But combat veterans aren’t the only ones affected by the widening disconnect between the military and the citizenry. The families of these soldiers also bear the brunt of the realities of modern war, something Siobhan Fallon captures all too gracefully in her collection of loosely linked short stories, You Know When the Men Are Gone. Without a hint of sentimentality, Ms. Fallon brings the quiet struggles and tragedies of those left behind to witness, and does so with a literary substance previously unfound in the annals of homefront literature.

You Know When the Men Are Gone starts off with an evocative rush, in a short story of the same name. Set around the vast expanses of Fort Hood, Texas, this normally bustling military community morphs into a ghost town whenever its armored, camouflaged caretakers depart for strange foreign lands -- something, in this era of recurring deployment cycles, occurs with disturbing regularity. Through the story’s narrator, Meg, we meet the spouses and children that rely on the sheer act of routine to get them through the days. They want nothing more than to hear from their soldier, to know that he is, for the time being at least, safe -- but this desire for communication is laced with a dark undertone, as some of them are doomed to hear that their husband, lover, and father won’t be coming home. Meg maintains a quiet, reserved distance from the world of military wives, which resembles a bee’s hive in terms of function and organization. Her internal musings as an outsider find an external counterpart in the form of Natalya, a young Serbian wife, mother, and neighbor who has absolutely zero interest in conforming to the generally accepted protocols of homefront life. As the story races to its unnerving conclusion, one can’t help but wonder if, in some ways, these women have it worse than their husbands; reality has limitations after all, something that can’t be said of the human imagination.

Explaining the intricacies of military culture and language to a civilian readership has overwhelmed more than one writer, but Ms. Fallon does so easily, in a manner that doesn’t feel forced or too expository. For all its mechanical rules and regulations, the Army, at its essence, is a people business -- something Ms. Fallon taps into seamlessly for thematic insights. There’s Ellen Roddy, who’s somehow juggling an overwhelmed husband and a rebelling teenage daughter with breast cancer. Down Tank Destroyer Lane lives Kailani Rodriguez, who suspects the father of her two young children of carrying on an affair with a female support soldier in Iraq. And at the house at the corner of Battalion Avenue and Hell-On-Wheels Way, Josie Schaeffer keeps a home for a man blown apart in an IED some weeks earlier. Ms. Fallon also displays uncanny understanding of a combat veteran’s psyche, as evidenced in the short story “Leave.” At times creepy and paranoid, at other times endearingly sweet, this story explores the deepest, darkest realms of the human mind, and is arguably the strongest of the collection.

This isn’t just a Lifetime drama on paper, though -- Ms. Fallon’s writing ensures that. Ms. Fallon’s work and has been published in a number of top literary journals, and her refined, deliberately crafted prose shines throughout the book. “The buses were blue,” begins the short story “Inside the Break,” describing the deployment ceremony. “There was a long line of them lurking, heaving in that big circus-animal way, giving off exhaust, shuddering, making their presence known, devouring the scant minutes left to the families… they watched their soldiers stand at attention behind the red banner of unit colors, then march into the waiting buses.” This forced stoicism, earned out of necessity rather than exuded for show, relaxes in personal reminiscence, which fleshes out these characters even more. In the short story “You Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming,” Carla Wolenski vividly remembers meeting her husband for the first time at a ROTC frat party in college. “She spotted Ted immediately… he spent the rest of the night dragging her around like his personal shot glass, licking salt and lemon juice from the inside of her elbow, pulling her close and breathing fire down her mouth, and she swallowed every burning drop.”

During my own deployment to Iraq in 2007-09, one of the sergeants in my scout platoon frequently quipped, “I volunteered. My family was drafted.” Though facetiously stated, his statement carried a lot of truth and uncomfortable insinuations with it. American society has grown quite comfortable with the caricature of the sacrificing, nobly emotionless soldier; yellow ribbon patriotism, though often derided, remains a pervasive poison. In reality though, our soldiers’ motivations, hopes, and resentments are far more varied and complex -- as varied and complex as any other group of people. You Know When the Men Are Gone reminds us that such is also the case for their family members. Through warfare, military personnel directly separate themselves from the society that reared them both in physical distance and metaphysical experience. That type of clarity is actually rather enviable, as their loved ones can only hope for such a clean break.  

You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon
Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam
ISBN: 0399157204
240 Pages

Matt Gallagher joined the U.S. Army in 2005 and received a commission in the armored cavalry. Following a 15-month deployment in Iraq, Gallagher left the army in 2009. His war memoir Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War was published in April 2010 by Da Capo Press. Originally from Reno, Nevada, he now lives in New York City.