In theeight wrenching, compassionate tales that make up Siobhan Fallon’s You Know When the Men Are Gone, we get the stories that it seems we’ve beenwaiting for through America’s decade at war. The military wives of Fort Hood,Texas—seen here in all of their raw anxiety and gritty resourcefulness—representa handful of the million-plus civilian families who have borne the brunt of thestrain on the home front since 2001.
Fallon, who lived at FortHood while her Army major husband served two tours of duty in Iraq, nails thedetails of life on base after the 18,000 soldiers in the First Cavalry Divisionare deployed, and the world dominated by camouflage uniforms shifts to one of”brightly colored baby carriages and diaper bags, Mommy & Memeetings…women on pastel blankets lounging on the parade field and sharingcinnamon rolls.”
“You learn too much,”she writes in the title story, hearing neighbors gargling, showering, andcrying themselves to sleep through the thin walls. This unwelcome knowledgeblooms in the pervasive quiet that the absent soldiers leave behind them: “Nomore boots stomping above, no more football games turned up too high, …withoutthe men, there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life.”
Meg, this story’s centralcharacter, scans the Internet for news of her husband’s infantry battalion eachmorning, meets weekly with her Family Readiness Group—women suddenly throwntogether in times of duress, “all of them bereft and left behind in thisdry expanse of central Texas”—and copes with loneliness. She watches withdismay as her new neighbor, Natalya Torres, a Serbian woman who met her husbandwhen she was cutting hair at a base in Kosovo, leaves her twin toddlerssleeping, dresses up and goes out on the town once a week, a routine thatbecomes a miniature scandal in this close-knit world.
Infidelity is also thehinge of “Leave.” Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash tells his wife he’snot coming home on a scheduled leave, maps out a surveillance mission, breaksinto his own house, and camps in the basement, waiting to find out if a friend’stip that his wife is seeing another man is true. In one of the many artfulmoments that link these stories, Nick recalls Staff Sergeant Torres (Natalya’shusband) going ballistic when a private has a radio blasting “Love the OneYou’re With.” The usually laid-back Torres stomps the radio tosmithereens.
Whileworrying about a sexy email a woman soldier has sent her husband in “Insidethe Break,” Lailani notes an ominous silence on base—three days with notone wife in the battalion receiving a call or email from her husband. This “commsblackout,” is followed by a telephone tree phone call: “Alpha Companygot hit. Sergeant Schaeffer died.”
Several storiesreverberate with the repercussions of this attack. Specialist Kit Murphy, asurvivor with a ruined foot, flies home with a group of fellow batteredsoldiers, all wondering if their wives would be waiting, and, if they were, “howlong would they stick around when they saw the burn scars, the casts, themissing bits and pieces that no amount of Star Wars metal limbs could make upfor.” And the widow of the sergeant killed in the attack shudders as shepulls into the empty “Gold Star Family” parking space in front of thecommissary. “Family members received a few special privileges like thislousy parking space, but that meant the pity rising from the asphalt singedhotter than any Texas sun.”
You Know When the Men Are Gone is an eloquent, unflinching, and beautifullynuanced portrait of these spouses, transformed by combat as profoundly as ifthey’d boarded the transports themselves.