A collection of linked stories set at Fort Hood convey the loneliness and strain experienced by military families.
Eons ago, it seems, George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003. Since then, the country has experienced a financial melt-down, a mortgage crisis, foreclosures, high unemployment, the election of our first African American president, the BP oil spill, a national health care plan, a national health care plan under attack, the rise of the Tea Party, and the shooting of a Congresswoman, among other things.
And still the war goes on.
For many, the Iraq war has become white noise, something irritating in the background that causes an occasional earache or ping of guilt. Siobhan Fallon’s new short story collection, You Know the Men Are Gone, sets out to change that. Her eight loosely connected stories take place primarily at the Army base at Ford Hood, Texas. In the title story, Fallon writes, “In Fort Hood housing, like all army housing, you get used to hearing through the walls.”
Fallon’s writing allows civilian readers to hear through those walls, taking them onto the base, a world unto itself. The power of this collection is in its specific and vivid details that show the tremendous strain military families experience. When the soldiers, mainly men, are deployed, the base shifts from a “world dominated by camouflage uniforms” to one populated mostly by mothers and babies. Five of the stories are told from a female character’s point of view, bringing the reader behind the scenes of a seemingly endless war by entering the world of army wives.
In “Remission,” Ellen Roddy is being treated for breast cancer, so her army husband is allowed to stay at Fort Hood on administrative leave. “There was something unseemly about John being home when all the other husbands were not.” For a while, Ellen attends the Family Readiness Group meetings, but they become too difficult. “[S]he would sit awkwardly, staring into her lap, while all the women around her commiserated with each other’s loneliness, discussed what they ought to send in care packages, or shared the contents of recent letters and emails.” When her teenage daughter drops out of soccer, Art Club, and band, Ellen comes to believe she is experiencing the same alienation.
In “Inside the Break,” the wives experience a threat “that had never occurred to any of them when they thought of faraway insurgents and bombs and helicopters crashing”: Behind the buses loaded with six hundred male soldiers is the supply bus with fifteen female soldiers headed for Iraq. One of the wives who stays behind hacks into her husband’s email and finds a message from one of those women: “I want ur body so bad.”
In one of the most riveting stories, “Leave,” Intelligence Officer Nick Cash suspects his wife is having an affair; instead of telling her he’s coming home on leave, he breaks into his own basement and conducts surveillance on his wife and daughter. “He had planned this mission the way the army would expect him to, the way only a soldier or a hunter or a neurotic could, considering every detail that ordinary people didn’t even think about.” Fallon successfully enters Cash’s paranoid, delusional interior, taking the story to its inevitable, yet gripping end, in which Nick, knife in hand, stands beside his sleeping wife and her lover.
Each of the stories in You Know When the Men Are Gone brings readers deep into the Army world, introducing well-chosen minutia of life on the base. Soldiers at target practice must stop if a cow wanders onto the range because Texas law does not ban cattle from neighboring farms from roaming onto the base. At five o’clock each evening, a bugle song blares, and the “women stopped their moving cars and got out, stood in the streets with their hands over their hearts, facing the flag just as their husbands would have done.” A parking spot in front of the commissary is reserved for the “Gold Star Family,” the “military euphemism for losing a soldier in combat.”
In “Gold Star,” Josie pulls into that spot, and a Vietnam vet approaches her to thank her for her sacrifice. She’s shopping for groceries because a soldier who served with her late husband is coming by for a visit. This final story captures the throbbing thread of loneliness that knits these stories together: After lunch, before he leaves, she unexpectedly sits in the soldier’s lap, where “Josie held on, the camouflage material swimming in front of her eyes, the back of his neck smooth.”