One of the things I most like about reading is stepping into a subculture I know next to nothing about. Siobhan Fallon does a very convincing job of revealing contemporary American Army culture in her short story collection, You Know When the Men Are Gone (Amy Einhorn/G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2011). Fallon earned her MFA from the New School in New York City and lived at Fort Hood while her husband was deployed to Iraq, great credentials for her slice-of-life fiction. Most of the stories take place in and around the haunting, insular world of Fort Hood on the outskirts of Killeen, Texas.
One story that stood out for me was "Leave", where Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash breaks into his own house as if he was on a strategic mission. And he is. Having strong suspicions his wife is having an affair, he lays low in the basement, coming out only when his wife and daughter depart. They do not know that he is on leave. He eats MREs and grazes lightly on food in the fridge when they are gone. He inspects the house for clues to what might have changed in his absence. A string of week days are one thing, coming one after another in a similar fashion. Nick knows the true test will come over the weekend. Will there be another man sitting down to dinner or staying the night? Is he simply paranoid, so used to searching out the enemy that suspicion has become his modus operandi? I won't tell you which way this story goes. You'll have to read it yourself to see, and I hope you find it to be every bit the masterpiece I consider it to be.
Although these stories are not often interconnected as far as characters go, a device that can make a collection more like a novel, there is much similarity in tone. An enormous tension lies just under the surface of the lives of the wives and children of the deployed, almost as if roadside bombs were to be found all over the home front. And when the warriors return, many seem to bring the ticking of such bombs home with them. Much as the soldiers display signs of post-traumatic stress, the spouses and families stateside might be described as having a constant stress disorder: before, during and after deployments. Although the collection portrays difficult themes of loneliness and loss, I also glimpsed much compassion, perseverance and strength.
The book's title implies an emphasis on the female point of view, yet we also step into the minds of the enlisted men. In "Camp Liberty", an American soldier starts to fall for his Iraqi translator only to have her disappear. In "The Last Stand", a wounded soldier returns home to a wife who is ready to give up the ghost of their marriage. We've all read war novels, but how often are we given the chance to go behind closed doors on an army base? If you are at all curious, You Know When the Men Are Gone is a good place to start. Just remember, this is fiction. The author's spare but revealing style may almost convince you otherwise. And that's a compliment!