Book Review: “You Know When the Men Are Gone” by Siobhan Fallon

The other day, while sitting in the kitchen with my three kids around me — the baby spooning yogurt into her mouth and on her hair, the two older kids looking at a LEGO catalog while munching apple slices and Cheez-its — I started, without thinking, to sing the song “Oh My Darling Clementine”; started out humming and then just moved into the words,

Oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’, oh my darlin’ Clementine,

you were lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry, Clementine.

I didn’t think much of the words — weirdly morbid as they are, like so many things intended for children — until I glanced up and saw tears streaming down my six-year-old son’s face. “What’s wrong, buddy?” I said.

“I don’t like that song,” he said, wiping his nose across the back of his hand. “It’s too sad.”

I almost laughed, out of surprise and fondness. I knew the song was a parody; it was supposed to be silly. But for my son, a kindergartener, it was about losing something and never getting it back.

I was reminded how children feel afresh what adults have grown used to.

*          *          *

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You Know When the Men Are Gone takes certain realities that we have grown used to and gives them back under the lens of fiction, which somehow, under Fallon’s skill and talent, intensifies and illuminates them. We all know that the recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan happened, that very young people returned very wounded, that families were separated for a year or more, sometimes over and over again. The gift of excellent fiction writing is that it somehow makes these realities more real, truer than tickers along the bottom of a television screen or than headlines in the paper; truer in a way that does not involve guilt or hopelessness so much as absorption and empathy.

Fallon’s book is a collection of eight linked stories centered primarily upon women who are waiting on Fort Hood — a huge Texas Army base halfway between Austin and Waco, with a population of about 70,000 — for their husbands, all serving in the War on Terror. There are poignant characters and colorful ones (Cristina, with her inch-long fuschia nails and penchant for gossip, may be one of my favorites).

Everyone in this story, man and woman alike, is separated from the person they love, and every single one of them is obsessed with what that beloved person might be up to. (I can attest —  having been a Navy wife now for nearly a decade — that this portrayal is highly accurate.) It struck me as I read that this intensity, this obsession, wholesome and love-based as its roots are, may be one of the most striking legacies of the military experience, which breeds a culture in which your most cherished family member’s worlds are often rendered unknowable, or just unknowable enough to torment you; it sometimes takes women who might have been busy and career-oriented in a previous life, then removes their spouse under extreme duress and reduces these women — like the character of Meg in the opening story — to a “half-life” of waiting, a dull and muted reality. In their fixation upon their spouse’s return, these women are also fixated on the deployment, and it all combines into a compound loss. “There was such unreality to the waiting, such limbo; sometimes she didn’t even know what she was waiting for. So much wasted time” (p.31).

Thankfully, during her husband’s multiple deployments, Siobhan Fallon did not waste her time: she “wrote and wrote and wrote.” In that way, When the Men Are Gone is readable not only as a literary achievement — the product of someone who received her MFA from The New School in NYC and is obviously familiar with the mechanics of a good story — but as the product of the intense crucible of waiting, the desperate, gorgeous result of an author’s imagination finding its freedom in the blips of time between fearing for a spouse’s safety and fretting over the singlehanded making of a childhood. Military spouses, I think, can feel this within the book’s pages, can read between the lines and be transported back into that endless gray area of waiting — because it wouldn’t be notable if it were all gray; of course a deployment grants those rare, startling moments of illumination, the struggle toward connections that finally, one time out of ten, feel right; the fight through static and loneliness and sorrow and unhelpful over-imagination to the moments that worked — thank God, there were always some that worked.

My family never had a military experience as intense as Fallon’s family did, or as difficult as those of the women waiting at Ft. Hood. My husband, as a Naval officer, does only six-month deployments, which any wife would happily trade for the grueling, soul-crushing year-plus deployments weathered by our Army and Guardsmen. And my husband was in a relatively safe place compared to the FOBs of Iraq and Afghanistan. I can’t imagine how I would have survived if I’d thought he could be hurt at any moment. I knew aircraft carriers could be a target, I knew things happened (the Cole and then all the littler attacks, the life’s work of a handful of sick people who want to see US soldiers dead) —  but the level of danger was much less.

Still, I can remember the shock of learning that he was deploying on six days’ notice. I remember the way we rushed to Target to buy a tape deck (they still made them in ’06) and frantically recorded his voice reading children’s books to play back for our daughter while he was gone, and the way he sobbed when he had to leave us while I stood there like a dumbstruck automaton, patting our three-month-old baby.  (And then, because we’d just moved to Virginia before the birth of the baby and were thousands of miles away from any family, I promptly  ran home to my mama.)

The weird intensity of these experiences, the strange rush-and-drag that they give to a person’s timeframe, is so palpable in Fallon’s book that I felt myself transported back to that mindset instantly.

*          *          *

You Know When the Men Are Gone is a book populated by ghosts. Some of them are the temporary ghosts of deployments, the men and women hovering day and night on the edge of each others’ consciousness. Others — as in the devastating final story, “Gold Star,” a reference all too familiar and dreaded by military families — are going to be ghosts always, and there is no rhyme or reason to it, no way to make sense of why one family’s husband and dad is just gone for a little while, and the neighbor’s never returns. (“Did he mean to save your life?” Josie demands, almost battering the soldier from her husband’s unit who has come to pay his respects. “Did he know he was saving you?”)

There are other kinds of ghosts in this book too, the ghosts of lost time. The millions of things a spouse will miss, the millions of experiences that can’t be shared. For military families, maybe these never really go away. Maybe they can still take your breath away when you are sitting at the table with your kids, and in your ear you hear your husband’s voice from the day before, here we go again  (The CO came in and talked to us today; they’re still talking deployment; no one knows anything concrete yet. Hey, here’s something I’ve learnedno one ever knows anything concrete). And you think — this is what we signed on for. This is what we’re giving. A lot of people think it’s shit, maybe, but for us it’s everything. You were lost and gone forever, dreadful sorry, Clementine.

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Siobhan Fallon on NPR

Siobhan Fallon in an upcoming anthology: Fire and Forget

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Siobhan Fallon (photo courtesy of author’s web site)

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