First off, I love short stories. I enjoy the entire genre, from Kate Chopin’s classics to the modern-day tales of Lahiri and Jin to Stephen King’s surreal shorts. So I can honestly say that YOU KNOW WHEN THE MEN ARE GONE is the most original collection of short stories I have come across in a very long time. Siobhan Fallon has done a fantastic job of taking an unfamiliar place --- in this case, an Army base --- and using her stories to turn it into a place we at least understand a little bit better. From her setting of the Fort Hood Army Base outside Killeen, Texas, to her assembled cast of characters --- displaced young army wives, wounded vets, jealous husbands --- to the plaintive storylines, everything is refreshingly new as Fallon mines heretofore untouched territory.
Fallon herself, according to the book jacket, lived at Ford Hood during her husband’s deployment to Iraq, so presumably she knows this territory all too well. Her ability to capture the emotions and experiences of her characters, as well as the descriptions of the physical base itself, underscores this knowledge.
For the most part, each story stands alone, their commonality being Fort Hood, a place where the welcome sign reads “Welcome to the Great Place, Fort Hood.” The base, we are told, stretches for 340 square miles. In fact, according to its website, it is the largest active-duty armored post in the US Armed Forces. That’s a lot of divisions, thousands of soldiers, countless deployments, and a ton of wives and children waiting out those deployments, going through the motions and watching the calendar until Daddy comes marching home.
In most of the stories, Fallon explores that pregnant time of waiting. The title story begins with families waving goodbye to their soldiers and ends with them welcoming home those same brave souls. In between these two occasions, Fallon explores the character of Natalya Torres, a tall, blonde Russian with two children left behind by her husband in a country where she cannot even read the cereal boxes in the Commissary, a stranger in the strangest of all lands. In “Leave,” a suspicious husband returns for the mid-tour leave he told his wife he wasn’t taking, in order to ascertain if in his absence she has been cheating. From a damp hidey hole in his own basement, he continues to eat MREs in the same lack of comfort he had in Iraq while trying to determine if she’s been unfaithful. “The Last Stand” examines the relationship of a young married couple (just out of high school) for whom deployment ends early when the husband returns home on crutches that support his permanently damaged foot --- and psyche.
Fallon explores things from the male point of view as well. There’s Moge, the investment banker who signed up after 9/11 and has a love-hate relationship with his Army career; Captain Tedm, whose obvious PTSD lands him in an Austin jail cell for unknown --- and unremembered by him --- reasons; and Kit, the soldier on crutches who appears in two stories.
Towards the end of the book, Fallon shares the wording on the opposite side of the Fort Hood welcome sign: “You Survived the War. Now Survive the Homecoming.” A digital counter is incorporated that tracks the number of monthly automobile fatalities; the burned-out carcass of a vehicle in front of the sign punctuates its message. Taken in context with these stories, the sign is also a message about the relationships trying to withstand everything the Army can throw at them. Despite the FRG (Family Readiness Group) meetings and the counseling on both sides of the world (no cursing! be charming!), time apart can never be recouped. Due to this lack of shared experience for such a prolonged time, an absence exists even after families reunite and struggle for normalcy. How do you survive when there never really is a normal?
Fallon has produced a phenomenal collection that should hit the book club circuit soon and will be considered good reference for anyone looking for more insight into and understanding of today’s modern Army wife/family. It also will engender a new level of compassion from us humble civilians for these people and their families who together serve our country so selflessly.
Reviewed by Jamie Layton on March 28, 2011