Published: Sunday, January 16, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 12, 2011 at 10:38 p.m.
Siobhan Fallon tells gripping, straight-up, no-nonsense stories about American soldiers and their families. It's clear from her tender yet tough-mind ed first book, “You Know When the Men Are Gone,” that she knows this world very well. The reader need not look at Fallon's biography to guess that she, like her book's characters, has spent time living in Fort Hood, Texas, watching the effects of soldiers' leave-takings and homecomings on men and the wives they leave behind. Married to a man who is on at least his third tour of duty, Fallon now lives where he is stationed, in the Middle East.
Virtually all of the military personnel in this loosely linked eight-story collection are male, with one dangerous exception. “Inside the Break” begins as Bravo Company leaves for Iraq, and a gathering of tear-stained wives bids their buses farewell. “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,” Fallon writes.
But the pain of separation becomes quite different when one of the wives looks at the last bus in the lineup, and sees that it holds “a threat that had never occurred to any of them when they thought of faraway insurgents and bombs and helicopters crashing.” The threat: 15 women.
Here is a situation that could be played for suspense, soap opera or ambiguity. But Fallon pulls no punches. When one of the wives, Kailani Rodriguez, hacks into her husband's e-mail, she finds an uncomplicatedly treacherous message (“are u coming overtues?”) slugged “So lonely” and sent from michelle.c.rand@us. army.mil.
In “You Know When the Men Are Gone,” what matters most about any military family crisis is its order of magnitude. So yes, Kailani has to deal with a husband whose best response to being accused of infidelity is to claim feebly that there must be some mistake. (“Crazy, huh?”) But she lives in a world where life feels tentative every single day, where women must brace for the fact that men come home lovingly, abashedly, unhinged or not at all. She must come to terms with that reality.
Most of the meltdowns that occur in “You Know When the Men Are Gone” are far more dire than sexual betrayal. “Leave” opens with the image of the suspicious Chief Warrant Officer Nick Cash breaking into his own Fort Hood basement in the middle of the night. Nick's specialty is interrogation, and he doesn't like what he's been hearing from his wife, Trish, when he calls home from a suburb of Baghdad. So he sneaks back to Texas on leave, moves stealthily into the basement and begins covert surveillance of his wife and daughter.
And Nick is haunted by the Grimm fairy tales that his daughter reads because his own life is full of latter-day versions of them. Why is the story of mother less, starving Hansel and Gretel any worse than that of a young Army corporal killed three days before he was due to see his wife and newborn baby?
“Such vicious twists dealt to the undeserving,” Fallon writes. And a vicious twist is dealt in “Leave” once Nick actually finds his nightmares justified, and he approaches his wife and her sleeping lover with his Gerber knife at the ready.
Other stories in this brief, tight collection — and there's not a loser in the bunch — include “The Last Stand,” in which Specialist Kit Murphy comes home to every soldier's nightmare. He is married; he is wounded; his initially chirpy wife (“Helena is so happy you are coming home!”) is going to abandon him. He realizes as much when she sleeps on her own side of their twin-bedded motel room on the night of his return.
Kit reappears in “Gold Star,” the final tale. He goes to visit a Gold Star wife, i.e. the widow of a soldier killed in combat, whose loss has earned her the right to certain perks. “Family members received a few special privileges like this lousy parking space,” Fallon writes, “but that meant the pity rising from the asphalt singed hotter than any Texas sun.”
Now equipped with a permanent limp and a prosthesis, Kit wants to thank Josie Schaeffer, the widow of a sergeant who has been mentioned several times earlier in the book. Schaeffer is said to have saved Kit's life. Kit, for his part, unintentionally lets the widow realize that the official version of how her husband died was untrue.
He awkwardly lets her sit on his lap. What does she want? Fallon keeps the answers to such questions simple, tough and true. Josie just wants to rest her face against the chest of a living, breathing man in uniform one more time.