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.

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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)

Book Review: “Train Dreams” by Denis Johnson

Book Review by Andria Williams (Navy wife, San Diego)

Photo of Denis Johnson by Robert Miller

(If given a choice of author photographs, I will always pick the one with the dog)

You can read Denis Johnson’s Train Dreams in 90 minutes, but that’s only one reason to read it. Train Dreams takes you, in one unspoiled bubble of experience, through the entire life of  lumberman and railroad builder Robert Grainier, who participates in the taming of the American West in the early 20th century.

Grainier stood among the railroad gang and watched while the first locomotive crossed the 112-foot interval of air over the 60-foot-deep gorge, traveling on the bridge they’d made. Mr. Sears stood next to the machine, a single engine, and raised his four-shooter to signal the commencement. At the sound of the gun the engineer tripped the brake and hopped out of the contraption, and the men shouted it on as it trudged very slowly over the tracks and across the Moyea to the other side, where a second man waited to halt it and jump aboard before it ran out of track. The men cheered and whooped. Grainier felt sad. He couldn’t think why. He cheered and  hollered too. (p. 11)

This straightforward, strong-verbed, manly prose (gorge, track, gun, whooped, sad) is what you’ll get in Train Dreams: plain-spoken descriptions of things that sound fantastical, and fantastical descriptions of things that seem small. It’s a hybrid of motley wonders, a tour through the big moments of western expansion, a quiet sifting through one man’s mind.

In this way, the scope of Train Dreams is both epic and very small. It’s half tall tale and half psychological foray. Construction and loss happen on an epic, wild-west scale.

The world that Grainier confronts — or, more accurately, is confronted by, because he’s really just minding his own business — is a mysterious, pre-1900s place that can be strange, cruel, occasionally exciting; no matter what, he accepts its caprices with little questioning.

Huge trees are wrestled to the ground, wolves roam by the hundreds. An outbreak of influenza takes a man’s 13 siblings in one fell swoop; a wildfire devours a swath of Idaho countryside, smoting every living thing in its path. Grainier’s own wife and infant daughter die in this fire, and he rebuilds a small cabin on the spot where their old one was, carrying out a quiet life that sometimes brings him face-to-face with wonder. He wanders over to the Idaho State Fair and sees his first airplane, which he takes a ride in; he’s aware “only of a great amazement”… “a vast golden wheat field, heat shimmering above a road, arms encircling him, a woman’s voice crooning, and all the mysteries of this life were answered” (p. 85). He watches trains cross bridges he has helped to build, he transports a man who claims to have been shot by his own dog; for income he drives a horse-pulled cart, soon to be replaced by automobiles.

The language in this book is gorgeous, cinematic; if you can take Robert Grainier at face value and allow him his almost childlike innocence, you’ll enjoy this book very much. (Perhaps his most common emotion is that of wonder — he is always amazed, astonished, agape, and so on — and occasionally, the dialogue can feel almost too folksy. This was bothersome to me only when Grainier was speaking to his wife, and they felt the need to say each other’s names at the beginning and end of each sentence — or it felt that way, anyhow. “Thank you, Bob.” “Do you like your sarsaparilla?” “Yes, Bob.”…”Say some of the words, Glad” etc.)

But those are minor complaints, and, overall, this mesmerizing little book is well worth the read. Like all good fiction, it will honestly transport you, working its way in an almost imperceptible build until you get to the last line, which will hit you like a thunderclap that’s come after a hundred little rumbles, and leave the page resonant and reverberating in your hand.

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Book Review: “Shout Her Lovely Name” by Natalie Serber (short stories)

book review by Andria Williams (Navy wife, San Diego)

I love a life story like Natalie Serber’s (stay-at-home-mother writes doggedly over the years, eventually publishes short story collection), and I also love Natalie Serber’s stories. Her first collection, Shout Her Lovely Name, is a bright, unsparing look at the relationship between mothers and daughters.

In Serber’s stories, these mother-daughter relationships aren’t just complicated, they are Fraught. The stories are realistic, beautiful, scary, and sad, and Ms. Serber’s eye misses nothing.

Natalie Serber (file photo)

The titular story opens the book, and it’s a terrifying look into the mind of a mother obsessed with her daughter’s eating disorder. Serber has said that this story is “closer to the bone” than any of her others, and the fact that her own daughter goes by the nickname “Lovely” hints that there may be an autobiographical aspect to it (much as I hate poking around for autobiographical anything in fiction). The story is beautiful, rareified, claustrophobic — you are riveted, you nearly stop breathing. It’s written in the second person, as a sort of dark “guide” for mothers of an eating-disordered child.


Later, after you have eaten half the brownies and picked at the crumbling bits stuck to the pan, apologize to your daughter. She will tell you she didn’t mean it when she called you chubby. Hug her and feel as if you’re clutching a bag of hammers to your chest (p. 5).

There are glimmers of bleak humor:

‘She called me pathetic-cunt-Munchhausen-loser.’ Where did your daughter learn this language? Your daughter has been replaced by a tweaking rapper pimp with a psychology degree. ‘What does she mean?’ you ask.  (p. 9)

I chuckled there, but still read almost desperately, wanting to claw my way out of the beautiful cadence and heartbreaking imagery. The story ends on a note of hope, thank God.

And from there we launch into a whole series of stories devoted to the character of Ruby — a smart young woman who finds herself pregnant and alone — and her years of raising her serious, responsible daughter, Nora. Only one story in the middle of the book deviates from these two characters, making the Ruby-Nora stories a sort of “suite” of linked tales.

Ruby and Nora are fascinating characters — you cringe for Ruby, who’s too smart to always be chasing men who will leave her, and yet does; you ache for sweet Nora,  a bright, observant latchkey kid who is painfully aware of the way neighbors judge her mother, who waits up for her mother when she goes on dates. Nora is tremendously loyal to her mother — when she finally goes on a brief trip to meet her father, at age 14, she starts missing her mother before she’d even boarded the plane.

I pictured myself walking off the plane with her fringed suede purse on my shoulder. As much as I wanted to go, as often as I’d imagined my father’s life and how I might fit in, holding her purse, I missed her already (p. 133).

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The stories are wonderful, but I always have hangups about the “collection of linked stories” idea. (Are we seeing more of these lately? I also recently read The Chester Chronicles by Kermit Moyer — again, primarily a series of linked stories about one central character.) The novelist in me can’t help thinking: If you really love these characters so much, if you can’t stop writing about them, why not just write a novel?The “suite of stories” idea has all the heart and character-love of a novel, but without the narrative urgency. It’s like seeing gorgeous little film clips of someone’s life, illuminating them, bringing them alive and then letting them go, over and over.

I’d invested a lot of time in  reading about Ruby and Nora, and I cared about them, and it wasn’t enough to be left with the image of Nora in her Santa Cruz apartment, working in a bakery, living with a man she doesn’t particularly love. This final Ruby-Nora story (which is not the final story in the book — it’s bookended by a separate short story about another family) didn’t feel like an ending. It didn’t pull things together for the characters the way a novel would have, and it got away with it because it’s a collection of linked stories, so it hired a Closer to take care of final business — that last short story, whose characters I didn’t feel like caring about after all the love I’d felt for Ruby and Nora. (It’s actually a great story. I held a grudge for a day and then I went back and read “Developmental Blah Blah” — that’s the title of the last story — and, like all of Serber’s writing, it stopped me in my tracks. So my initial hostility was unfair.)

But this is more of a complaint against the form, and not about Serber’s writing. You’ll be thinking about these characters for days, maybe weeks. You’ll think about your mother and your daughter and every mother-daughter pair you ever knew, and you’ll fume a bit at how sons get off so goddamn easy.

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