DEAR MR. PRESIDENT
Stories and a Novella
by Gabe Hudson (Knopf, $19)
As if we needed more weird throwbacks to 1991 beyond the improbable comeback of acid-washed jeans or a stock market stumbling like a drunkard, each new day brings more huffing and puffing from the White House about what Junior's going to do to Saddam come fall.
Desert Storm Redux will not be a surprise attack.
The frustrating thing is that we've yet to see a human side to the first battle, Desert Storm. Touted as the first "modern war," Desert Storm's heroes were not the soldiers who went to the Gulf, but the technology flaunted there: America's smart bombs, Scud missiles, night goggles, and Hummers.
Taking up the topic now in a debut collection of stories, Dear Mr. President, Gabe Hudson squanders the opportunity to tell us something new about Desert Storm. Instead of giving us characters who lived and breathed and bled through that war, he draws up a cast of neurotic cartoons whose sole purpose is proving what a funny guy their creator is.
The trouble is that Hudson is not very funny. His sense of humor stems from a fixation on bodily functions, sex, and homosexuality. "Cross-Dresser" concerns a captain who puts on women's clothes and believes he is his late daughter, who died while he was away. "Notes From a Bunker Along Highway 8" is about a young man who goes AWOL shortly after his father, in protest of the war, takes a gay lover; the young man is horrified to discover that his father is the femme in the relationship.
Again and again Hudson tries to charm us with sophomoric humor. The title novella takes the form of a letter from a veteran to former President Bush detailing the symptoms of his Gulf War Syndrome, a grab bag of ill-nesses some say were brought on by biological weapons used by Iraq. The retired corporal's acceptance of these odd symptoms—he grows an ear on his chest, his wife sprouts an extra mouth—is supposed to be a comment on how desperately he wants to believe Uncle Sam is watching out for him. Hudson beats the joke to death.
"What's one ear more or less," the corporal gamely writes. "It's not like it was causing me any pain. I mean, sure, if I accidentally touched it, grazed it or whatever, it felt like a burning-hot coal was searing through my skin until I put an ice cube on it, but other than that it was fine."
As with other writers to emerge from Dave Eggers' journal McSweeny's, Hudson compounds the grating quality of his tone by relying upon hackneyed, condescending ironic devices; the table of contents includes a mini-description of each story, as if we might need a plot summary. Other stories contain lots of Unnecessary Capitalization, to numbing effect.
Only during the rare moments Hudson gives his funny bone a rest do his characters succeed in telling us something new. Only once—when the narrator of "Notes From a Bunker Along Highway 8" makes an observation full of genuine anger and rage—does the book let down its ironic guard.
There's no need to resort to surrealism when writing about the Gulf War; reporting the facts would give any resourceful writer plenty of wet-your-pants material. And yet Hudson continues to pile on the absurdism, right down to the Bedouins who spout Schwarzenegger-like dialogue as they pull out rifles and blast away. If that's funny to you, then Dear Mr. President is worth trying. If not, you may hope the second time around a few more writers are taking notes.
John Freeman's reviews have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, and The Washington Post Book World.