Tuesday, January 25, 2011
In exile in my own land.
I was extraordinarily excited to read a review of Siobhan Fallon's You Know When The Men Are Gone in today's Washington Post Style section. You Know is Fallon's first book, a collection of short stories set in and around Fort Hood, Texas, during the deployment of the 1st Cav to Iraq.
I lived in Fort Hood for a few years, pre 9/11, and my father deployed with 1st Cav afterwards, although we had already departed for Virginia. But I remember Fort Hood with more detail than I'd like to, down to the small, dirt-colored road runner I saw racing up the middle of the street outside our house on one of the first mornings we were there, before the jet lag had worn off. Because the Texas school system starts ridiculously early, one of the first things I had to do was go to the local middle school to register. They were renovating it and the linoleum was paved with the crushed bodies of four-inch long palmetto bugs, their tobacco-colored insides oozing out of their armored bodies.
I remember thinking that it was a really bad sign.
Fallon's writing is intimately attuned to the unique rhythm on the military base, which has a sort of relentless cadence. Even the baby booms happen in sync. Mom would come home with stacks of baby blankets embroidered with the unit's insignia to give to the newborns exactly nine months after the soldiers got R&R. And when the men are gone, there is a different rhythm, which is what Fallon picks apart in her mostly solid collection of stories that are centered around waiting, hope and hopelessness, betrayal, and faith.
Her first story, "You Know When The Men Are Gone," introduces readers to the tedium of life on the base after deployment. The base's reason for existing, its vitality, is gone, and the women left behind scramble for substitutes with which to fill up their days. Meg, a childless Army spouse (a very rare creature on Fort Hood), occupies her time listening to the life of another Army wife on the other side of their shared wall. Natalya, a bride from Serbia, is isolated from the other Army wives by her accent, her flashy looks, and her standoffishness, but Meg becomes obsessed with decoding the rhythm of Natalya's life, until she finds herself unexpectedly involved.
"Camp Liberty" shifts from Fort Hood to Baghdad, where former investment banker David Mogeson, enlisted after 9/11, makes an unlikely soldier but a surprisingly competent sergeant until the disappearance of an interpreter rocks his emotional center. In "Remission," an Army spouse with cancer struggles to cope with her disintegrating body and relationship with her children. In "The Last Stand," a returning soldier also tries to cope with his injuries and the dissolution of his young marriage.
"Leave" is the most terrifying of Fallon's stories. A soldier who suspects his wife of cheating returns from Iraq and breaks into their house, setting up camp in the basement while his wife and child continue their lives, unsuspecting, above him while he waits for evidence of his wife's infidelity.
Post-traumatic stress syndrome and betrayal are common themes of Fallon's stories, from cheating wives and husbands to chaotic homecomings. You Know contains the same group of characters in each story, which helps link them together and mimics the insular world of the military base, where everyone knows everyone else (and you keep running into the same people year after year, in country after country, whether it's the American South, Western Europe, or Korea).
Fallon's writing is solid if unsurprising. Her stories do not ambush you; rather, they build up a steady drumbeat, and her portrayal of rage, grief, and pain are sturdily drawn. Her stories fit together like interlocking blocks, and while I'm curious to see if she can handle the nuances of a longer work of fiction, I will definitely be keeping an eye out for more writing from Fallon.