Siobhan Fallon

I read “You Know When the Men Are Gone” immediately after consuming that big fat Novel Of The Year, the one that landed Jonathan Franzen on the cover of Time Magazine and runs a mere 500-plus pages of dense, gooey-rich thickness.

Ironic?

“Freedom” is at the back-end of all the stories in “You Know When the Men Are Gone.”  The pursuit of “freedom,” if you buy one of the many reasons for invading Iraq (for instance), is why the soldiers are fighting and leaving the women behind—for Fallon to fictionalize.

Compared to Franzen’s chunky many-weeks-long brick of a read, “You Know When the Men Are Gone” is a smooth pebble, one sitting or two if you wanted. It still carries plenty of weight. I needed something like it, badly, after the weeks with Franzen.  (More about “Freedom” soon; I liked it more than I thought I would, given that I couldn’t wade through “The Corrections.”)

Today I’m here to praise this slim volume of stories for many things, including Fallon’s ability to get to the point and to do it so well. For her restraint and precision, the ability to set a whole scene with a few brush strokes.

The feeling evoked by the collection is captured in one sentence: “That was how the army worked its system of checks and balances, there was an ever-present chain of command, a shadowy specter that haunted the soldier as well as his or her civilian spouse, ready to swoop down with a raised voice and pointed finger at the least infraction.”

That’s from “Remission,” one of the best stories.  “Remission” is about military wife Ellen and events spinning very much out of control, missing children among them.  The mood throughout the linked stories is, well, stifling.  You find yourself wanting these characters to breathe, to let go.

As Christina Diaz is seeing off husband Manny for another tour of duty, the crushing sense of what’s appropriate (and what’s not) finally lifts when the men, as the title of the book suggests, are gone.  “It was fine to look this horrible now that the men were too far away to see their faces, fine to finally grieve, messy and ugly. Crying in public offered a strangely satisfying relief. Most of them had been through this before, the good-bye, the long deployment, the jubilant return, and they cried now as much for themselves and the lonely year ahead as they did for the men heading off for the dangers of war.”

Fallon’s writing is sharp, concise and borders on minimalism. The prose is lean and unsentimental. Fallon lets us watch these lives play out at gritty, challenging moments. Most of the stories are told from the woman’s home perspective, but not all. Fallon portrays men just as well.  She is a keen observer, almost reporteresque. This is a powerful short story collection.  I didn’t love the end of “Leave” (I thought it cheated us a bit) but “You Know When the Men Are Gone” shows us that “the military” is an entire world that affects and impacts those on the front lines and those far back, at home.

In a column in Publisher’s Weekly, Fallon said: “An army base is a strange place. An army base in a time of war, especially after 4,000 men pack up their duffel bags, put on their uniforms, and leave their wives and children for an entire year. In You Know When the Men Are Gone, I attempt to show that world and the moments that lead up to the separation, the long and difficult absence, the return. Military families are wrenched apart and expected to piece themselves together again and again. Somehow, they manage. They improvise. They take the strangeness and make it normal.”

In writing (both short stories or novels, right?) it’s always good to have a clear target.  And for Fallon, I want to tell her: “mission accomplished.”

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