You Know When the Men are Gone by Siobhan Fallon
Published by Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint of Penguin
At one time, I swore off short stories, at least to review. They are always so uneven and difficult to talk about comprehensively. And then I had a chance to talk to Amy Einhorn, the publisher of an imprint I adore at Penguin, and she told me about this short story collection she would be releasing called “You Know When the Men are Gone.” She told me that short stories don’t usually call to her, but these did, and she found herself more captivated than she would have expected by the stories of men and women whose lives are touched by enlistment in the Army, men and women who live at Ft. Hood in Texas – at least when they are not overseas in Iraq.
Short stories about army families. The concept doesn’t immediately grab me and demand to be read, but because of Amy Einhorn’s enthusiasm, I knew I wanted to try “You Know When the Men Are Gone.” If anyone else had published this, if I had not had a chance to sit down with Amy and hear her talk about it, I would likely never have picked this book up, it would not have even been on my radar. If that had been the case, my reading life would have been poorer for it.
You also know when the men are gone. No more boots stomping above, no more football games turned up too high, and, best of all, no more front doors slamming before dawn as they trudge out for their early formation, sneakers on metal stairs, cars starting, shouts to the windows above to throw down their gloves on cold desert mornings. Babies still cry, telephones ring, Saturday morning cartoons screech, but without the men, there is a sense of muted silence, a sense of muted life.
The passage above, located on the first page of the first story, stood out to me in particular, partially because it is the title passage from the title story. However, as I reflect back upon the book, it stands out to me again, not because it is the highlight of Fallon’s writing, but because it is indicative of the strength of this collection. The first story starts out strong, and stays strong, and the same is true of the rest of the stories. There always seem to be stories that are weaker than others in collections such as this, it is such a truth that to say so has become a cliche to mention it in a review. This is not the case for “You Know When the Men Are Gone.” I’m sure each individual will resonate with some stories more than others, but none of the stories can be denigrated as a weak link, all are incredibly well-written, and the character development is top notch. Story arcs are not rushed, but still come to a satisfying – if not always tidy – solution at the end of 30 or so pages.
Siobhan Fallon has been compared to Jhumpa Lahiri on the back cover of the book, a daunting claim since Lahiri’s stories seem t be the only ones read by people who aren’t really fans of short stories. In some ways, this may do a disservice to Fallon, whose stories don’t have the same bleakness that characterizes “The Interpreter of Maladies,” a trait which does turn some readers away, despite Lahiri’s brilliant writing. Certainly some of the stories in “You Know When the Men Are Gone” are full of despair, but many also contain kernels of hope. People expecting the same sort of stories that Lahiri tells may not be immediately satisfied – in my opinion that was more closely achieved by Sana Krasikov’s collection “One More Year” – but readers searching for the strength and beauty of writing and storytelling that Lahiri possesses will be very pleased with “You Know When the Men are Gone.”
I read “You Know When the Men are Gone” over the space of a single day, even pausing between stories, making myself read something else or step away from the book for awhile, to make the experience last longer. At the end, however, I simply couldn’t keep myself from returning to it time and again, until I found myself at the end of the collection, and experiencing my first disappointment brought to me by Fallon’s book: that there are only eight stories.
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