Book review, 'You Know When the Men Are Gone': Painfully authentic Army stories

By Lily Burana
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, January 24, 2011; 6:53 PM


By Siobhan Fallon

Amy Einhorn. 226 pp. $23.95

The Army loves its acronyms. We all know SNAFU, AWOL and R&R. A lesser-known abbreviation among civilians is BLUF: Bottom Line Up Front. At any military meeting, the time-pressed leader invariably wants the BLUF: Get to the point, time's a-wasting. So, busy reader, here's the BLUF on Army wife Siobhan Fallon's first short story collection: "You Know When the Men Are Gone" is a terrific and terrifically illuminating book.

Fort Hood, the country's largest active-duty military installation - where Fallon lived during her husband's two deployments to Iraq - forms the ideal backdrop for these eight loosely interconnected stories of marriage and family life in this time of war. The spare, rural Texan landscape and the stripped-down post itself, surrounded by a ring of tattoo parlors and pawn shops that yield to rings of highways and chain-store sprawl, evoke the essence of military Americana: a war-machine hub bound by barbed wire, then loneliness rolling out for miles. Inside the security checkpoints, it's the same as any other Army post anywhere in the world: eggshell-thin walls between quarters; commissary parking lots clogged with cars on the biweekly paydays; women and children left behind, waiting.

In the title story, a young wife, Meg Brady, becomes obsessed with her glamorous Serbian neighbor, Natalya. Meg's fascination forms a powerful counterpoint to her own life, held in suspense by her husband's absence and her morbid thoughts, which crop up during seemingly innocuous activities such as grocery shopping: "She walked the meat aisle, passing her husband's favorites: baby back ribs, pork chops, bacon-wrapped filet mignons. She reached out, touching the cold, bloody meat through the plastic. The raw flesh both horrified and mesmerized, and she wondered if a human being would look the same if packaged by a butcher, the striations of fat, the white bone protruding, the blood thin like water in the folds of the wrap. She wondered if wounds looked like this, purple and livid, but with shrapnel sticking out, dust clinging to the edges, blood in the sand. She quickly put the packaged beef down, telling herself that she would not think such things after Jeremy was home."

"It's a small Army," the expression goes, and the entwined lives of Fallon's characters bear this out. In a heartbreaking story called "The Last Stand," injured specialist Kit Murphy journeys home from the Middle East to his wife, Helena. "His section of the plane was dotted with fellow battered soldiers leaning forward with sweat on their foreheads, all of them wondering if their wives would be waiting, and if they were, how long they would stick around when they saw the burn scars, the casts, the missing bits and pieces that no amount of Star Wars metal limbs could make up for."

He later shows up in the equally devastating closing story, "Gold Star," to be pressed into telling a young widow how exactly her husband - a senior noncommissioned officer - was killed. "I don't mean any disrespect, ma'am," he says, trying to dilute her pain to distance himself from it. "But does it matter? I'm alive because of your husband. . . . He saved my life."

The highest praise I can give this book - as a critic and a soldier's wife - is that it's so achingly authentic that I had to put it down and walk away at least a dozen times. At one point, I stuffed it under the love seat cushions. If Fallon ever expands her talents into a novel, I may have to hide in the closet for a month.

Challenging as the subject matter may be, this is a brisk read. Fallon's sentences are fleet and trim. Her near-journalistic austerity magnifies the dizzying impact of the content: This is your brain on war.

There is grace in this collection, as well as willed forgiveness and valiant attempts at understanding. But mostly there is pain, of the ignoble sort. A steely thread running through these stories is the hard truth about modern military domestic life: In the endless grind of deployments, upheavals and uncertainty, there are more casualties than we can count. Marriages falter, vows get smashed into dust, suspicions simmer, children suffer.

The story "Leave," in which a warrant officer sneaks home from Iraq and breaks into the basement of his own house to spy on his wife, is one of this collection's most powerful stories. He lurks below, wondering if she's cheating on him, wondering what he will do once he finds out. The takeaway from the story, and all the others, is this: When the men come home, the real battles begin. And if the war doesn't kill you, the fiery reentry just might.

Burana is the author of "I Love A Man in Uniform: A Memoir of Love, War, and Other Battles."

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