There are lots of war stories out there, but most of them focus on life at the front.
“You Know When the Men Are Gone,” Siobhan Fallon's debut collection of short stories, offers an insider's guide to a side that gets ignored: the military spouses left alone to cope with families, bills, illnesses, and an ever-present dread. (There are female soldiers in Fallon's collection, but no men left waiting at home.)
Set in Iraq and at Fort Hood in Texas, the largest military base in the country, “You Know When the Men Are Gone” combines a just-the-facts-ma'am approach to storytelling with a tenderness for her characters.
Fallon is herself a military wife who was stationed at Fort Hood, 340 square miles of scrub, cypress trees, and cows, and she knows the terrain she covers here.
“In Fort Hood housing, like all army housing, you get used to hearing through the walls. You learn your neighbors' routines: when and if they gargle and brush their teeth; how often they go to the bathroom or shower; whether they snore or cry themselves to sleep. You learn too much,” Fallon writes in the title story. “You also know when the men are gone.... Babies still cry, telephones ring, Saturday morning cartoons screech, but without the men, there is sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life.”
In the title story, a woman tries to befriend her neighbor, a Serbian viewed with suspicion by the other wives for her beauty, her hands-off parenting, her dog, and the contents of her shopping cart. In others, a wife breaks into her husband's e-mail to see if he's alive, only to find out he might be having an affair; a woman battles breast cancer and her teenage daughter; and a military intelligence officer mounts a reconnaissance campaign on his own wife from his basement.
In Fallon's hands, Fort Hood is a sprawling yet insular place where privacy is difficult to come by. A trip to the commissary can be fraught with emotional peril; people are judged by the cookies they bring to a swap; and a parking spot can tell shoppers more than a character ever wanted them to know about her marriage.