Writer Frank O'Conner emphasized that loneliness and isolation were the most compatible themes with the short story's formal qualities. In that spirit, "You Know When The Men Are Gone" by Siobhan Fallon is the quintessential short story collection, and Siobhan Fallon one of the best new writers to arrive in many years.
These series of stories are at heart about isolation even in the midst of a community that makes great efforts to reach out to those affected by deployment over seas. You never know the private battles your neighbor is going through, and they come in many shapes and sizes: PTSD, physical trauma, lost limbs, infidelity, graft...as if life isn't hard enough, being married and in the military dials up the pitfalls and trials to eleven. Fallon's voice rings true in these tales, and why shouldn't they? She was a military spouse stationed in Fort Hood while her husband completed two deployments in Iraq. A marriage that survives base housing and deployments has the legs to hold together a hundred years.
These stories are the farthest thing from the hackneyed, pop-culture, CNN coverage of war that we are subjected to, turning our serving men and women into caricatures better suited for video games and selling Tide. Military aficionados tend to love the hardware: the tanks, planes, and guns, but at the trigger of any expensive piece machinery is a man or a woman--someone's son or daughter who played little league, danced at their prom, or had a broken heart once. Fallon humanizes the humans in the military, and never lets you forget there are human consequences to going to war on many levels.
My favorite tale was, "The Last Stand," about an injured soldier, Kit, back from the war and very aware that his wife, Helene, had been pulling away from him while he was deployed. It's told from his perspective, so the reader sympathizes with his plight, his longing to make it work. The reader knows Kit's a good guy that loves his wife and the extent to which he wants to make things up to her. The complexity of Fallon's writing is such that she manages to convey Helene's unhappiness through Kit's point of view in a manner that makes it clear she's not in the wrong for doing what she does, harsh as it is. The marriage is simply a casualty of war. It's his story, but you sympathize for her as well and admire her strength for following through.
The stories in this collection strike a somber note over all, and that's appropriate, because war is only ever fun and happy in John Wayne movies. As a writer, I am jealous of Fallon's effortless poetic prose (it's subtle like egg foam folded into waffle batter). The collection is ultimately fair to both the military and its service men and women in its depiction. There are no twirling mustachios or Schwarzeneggeresque heroes here, just flesh and blood human beings from the mind of a great talent.
I highly recommend reading "You Know When The Men Are Gone."