You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon [website] 240 pages Published January 20, 2011 Short stories
I was excited to read You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon because I love short stories. One of my favorite short stories, “A Clean Well Lighted Place” by Ernest Hemingway, was so moving that I’ve never forgotten it and I think about it quite often, even though I read it more than 15 years ago. Siobhan Fallon’s book was published by Amy Einhorn Books, an imprint for which I have immense respect.
I started reading You Know When the Men Are Gone in late December. Not having much reading time means that short stories are perfect for my schedule right now. Unfortunately, though, I put the book down after four stories because I just didn’t find them compelling. They were good, yes, and the writing was good, and I was certainly finding passages to mark, but I wasn’t getting that POW! that I think you should get from a short story. An author has 20-30 pages to tell a story, when in a normal novel you get 250-400 pages, so the prose has to be tight and the story succinct. I prefer my short stories to pack a punch. If you’ve read “A Clean Well Lighted Place”, have you forgotten the ending? I know I can’t. I’m not saying that Fallon should wrap up her stories in nice, tidy packages. On the contrary, I love ambiguity and open endings. But stories can still pack a punch without a tidy ending.
When I put You Know When the Men Are Gone aside, I wasn’t sure I’d pick it up again. But then the book was published, Siobhan Fallon was being compared to Jhumpa Lahiri, and my local bookstore picked it for their January First Editions Book Club. I also heard from a friend who’d read You Know When the Men Are Gone that the book does get better, so it was with renewed hope that I again picked up the book.
For purposes of this review, I will discuss the first and last story, as well as a story in between.
The first story, “You Know When the Men Are Gone”, had me very excited to read this book. Meg, waiting for her husband to come back from deployment, becomes obsessed with her neighbor, Natalya. She starts spying on her, staying up late to listen to the sounds that Natalya and a mysterious visitor make. I was really excited to see where this would go. Where would Meg’s obsession take her? Would Natalya find out she’s being spied on? Would this become a problem in Meg’s marriage? By the end, I was disappointed to see the story fizzle out, and Meg’s obsession fizzled as well.
The last story, “Gold Star”, helped to redeem this book for me, though not enough for me to want to keep it in a permanent collection. Kit, a character in a previous story, goes to see the widow of the man who saved him from an IED. You see things unfold through the widow’s eyes, Josie. A story dealing with a young widow who wouldn’t have kids with her husband until he left the military, and who was killed one month before he was due to be discharged, should be raw and intense and really make me feel something. And I did. Sometimes. But Fallon could have spent more time showing the reader what Josie was doing to keep her husband near her in death. I saw one or two things she would do, such as putting pictures of him all over their house, but I wanted more. How is this affecting Josie? How is she not coping? I wanted more of that. Admittedly, I loved the ending and wish each story packed more of an emotional jolt like “Gold Star”.
I want to be clear that I thought the stories in You Know When the Men Are Gone were thisclose to greatness. Fallon touched on some universal thoughts and feelings that I wish she’d spent more time fleshing out. For example, in “The Last Stand”, Kit comes home after suffering an injury due to an IED, and he’s not sure Helena, his wife, will be waiting for him when he gets off the bus. Helena hasn’t talked to him much on the phone lately, and when she would call the hospital he was at, she would leave messages instead of asking to speak to him. He knows there’s a rift, but how to fix it or even why it happened is beyond him. So as he’s looking through the crowd of wives and girlfriends, we read, “…he kept his eyes on her hair and wouldn’t look around, afraid another soldier would see how relieved he was to find someone waiting for him.” Does your heart just not break for him in that moment? But as Kit tries to understand what’s going on between him and Helena, the reader isn’t treated to any more of Kit’s deep, dark secrets about the possibility of Helena leaving him, so when she does leave him, I was left feeling sorry for Kit, but that was it. I was sad for him, but ultimately I could forget him because I wasn’t invested in him.
As I write this review, I’m thinking about what makes stories, any story, memorable. It could be the crazy antics, the unique situation, etc. But what makes things most memorable? I would argue that it’s the emotions we relate to in a story that make a story memorable. Right? A trauma in someone’s life is so much more real when you experience it with them. Let’s pretend your friend’s mom died. Unfortunately, that’s not that unique of a situation. But what makes it memorable is that you spent hours talking about it with your friend, you saw your friend’s mom in the bed that hospice brought over, and you knew from what your friend said that your friend would be lost without her mom, that life would never be the same. See how a story can change when you have an emotional connection? That’s what I, as a reader, didn’t feel like I got in You Know When the Men Are Gone.
Many of the stories in You Know When the Men Are Gone start out with a lot of promise, but they end up petering out at the end. I don’t want a short story to end. I want it to END. The best thing about “A Clean Well Lighted Place” is not only the loneliness and despair that Hemingway evokes in so few pages, but the fact that at the end, you realize that the old waiter, while talking about the old man staying well past closing, is also talking about himself when he talks about wanting a clean, well lighted place to be at night. My heart broke when I read the last page of this short story as the despair and loneliness was that much more palpable as I realized who the story was really about.
One of the things that frustrates me in a situation like this is that a book of short stories comes out and all of a sudden the writer is compared to the best of the best in that genre. In this case, Jhumpa Lahiri. Jenn talked about this very thing recently. Is it because there’s so few authors of fabulous short stories? Is it because it’s human nature to compare this to that? It’s partly due to the comparison of Fallon to Lahiri that my heart is heavy in writing this review. Because when I see a good author compared to a great author, I have to explain, even more so, why the good author isn’t great. That’s exactly the situation in this case. I thought You Know When the Men Are Gone was good, and Fallon may one day even be great, but we’re not quite there yet.