Book Review

War is, Well, . . . Nuts


Dear Mr. President:

Consider this scenario. A young man invites you to his house so he can tell you stories. You accept because you’re in the mood for a good yarn or two. Plus, he served as a rifleman in the Marine reserves during the 1991 Gulf War and you figure he’s a straight shooter with something to say. When you enter he locks the door. The place is huge and wide open and he asks you to sit at one end of the house. He walks to the other end and climbs onto a small stage. Then he does something strange. He reaches into a bag and pulls out two hand grenades. One, he explains, is a fake. The other is real. He has no clue which is which. With that he yanks the pin out of one grenade. Then he tells his story.

And it’s so twisted that you stick around to watch him pull pins out of grenades all afternoon.

The scenario is mine, but it gets at the guts of what it’s like to enter Gabe Hudson’s creepy Gulf War narratives. In a word: unnerving. But refreshingly so. With the major news networks cheerleading the invasion of Iraq rather than reporting it and with op-ed writers complaining that it’s un-American to wield anti-war signs once war has started, edgy fiction may be the last refuge for the skeptic. And while I generally refrain from seeking insights into current events from young short story writers whose sole claim to fame is squeaking a piece into the New Yorker’s summer fiction issue, these are desperate times for critical minds. So as my heretofore left-leaning political magazines dodge to the right (The Atlantic, The New Republic) I’ve got to give Gabe Hudson credit for the following reminder, blurted out by infantryman “G.D.” in “Notes from a Bunker Along Highway 8”:

Our mission was to hunt and destroy SCUDs deep inside Iraq, and let me tell you, a SCUD is almost as dangerous as a BB gun, and definitely less accurate. They have no guidance system, and so the Iraqis just point them in a general direction and presto: off goes a deadly SCUD. Of course, our gazillion dollar Patriots, courtesy of that genius Reagan, are just as ridiculous, because when a SCUD starts to drop it shatters into a thousand little parts of scrap metal, and when we fire a Patriot it just locks in on one of those little pieces and those jerk offs claim they shot down a SCUD. CNN runs the story, then everyone back home waves their flag, and the whole thing starts to remind you of a professional wrestling match.

Amen. However, any hopes for a sober analyst eager to dole out the straight dope are instantly dashed when, a page later, our politically astute protagonist stumbles upon the first of his many life-defining “epiphanies”:

Then, and I don’t know why I did this, I glanced up for a split second, and I saw George Washington right out there in the middle of all the smoke and chaos. He was shirtless, sitting in a wooden hot tub with his arms draped around two Bud Girls in bikinis. There was a patch of fuzzy white pubic hair on his chest. I saw a half eaten burrito perched on the edge of the tub. . . . Just then a young African American man strolled up behind George carrying a tray on which were three silver goblets, and said, ‘Yous ready fo y’alls drinks, mastah’?

So much for the true grit of war. But, in a way, Hudson’s onto something with these surreal diversions. Granted, the literary technique has been honed by Vonnegut and Heller (and Hudson quietly situates himself in their genre), but his recognition that war is more than hell—in fact, that it’s fantastically absurd—has a timely and truthful ring. The George Washington mirage, coupled with a reminder of America’s tainted roots, reflects Hudson’s willingness to take literary gambles. Sure, it’s a tactic that leads him down imaginative pathways that seem doomed to end in the kind of self-destruction that I imagine transpires regularly in writing seminars. But, impressively, the tension never dies, the story always coheres, and the fantastic leaps from reality lend his work an elusive and unpredictable gravitas, not to mention power, sadness, and truth.

For example, right before G.D.’s bunker mate, Dithers, takes a bullet to the chest, the men approach a shepherd wandering with his flock. As they move into firing range “seven or eight of the sheep stand on their hind legs and cast off their wool coats” to reveal “Iraqi soldiers brandishing AK-47s.” In the hands of a less tactful writer, this bit on wolves in sheep clothing would read like a silly, hackneyed stunt. Hudson tactfully uses it, however, to increase the intensity of the moment, condensing the scene into a vicious splat of violence when “Dithers let out an earsplitting scream.” A backup soldier arrives and beats the offending Iraqi into a pulp. “He was doing the funky chicken,” reports G.D., “flopping around like something neural had been severely damaged.” The conflict accelerates into a cacophonous maelstrom and, um, I have to wonder: is it time to laugh? It’s never quite clear. Through such tangled juxtapositions of stark realism and Barthian absurdity, Hudson continually lures us into an irresistible and bloody funhouse. The world he creates thrives on raw emotional ambiguity and a snickering sense that things are really, really fucked up.

The title story, “Dear Mr. President,” raises this tense, delicate balance to an even higher level of calibration. Assuming the form of a rambling letter written by Lance Corporal James Laverne to “the Honorable George Bush,” dated October 17, 1991, this piece was Hudson’s New Yorker coup and, not surprisingly, it’s the book’s most gripping tale. The premise involves Laverne recounting the day that he shook hands with President Bush, who was making the obligatory rounds at the troops’ Kuwaiti base camp. “I remember it like it was yesterday, sir,” he explains.

“I’ve enclosed a copy of the picture that was taken of us . . . That’s you wearing the gas mask. I’m not wearing mine because, as you know, the corpsmen gave us experimental anti-biological-warfare pills every day so that we didn’t have to wear gas masks. Boy, I took more pills when I was over there than I’ve taken in my entire life.”

That fateful day, he continues, “will always shine bright in my mind, like a beacon as I sail through the stormy waters of my life.”

Stormy is putting it lightly, Laverne has gone stark raving mad since returning from the war. And he has no idea. Hence, Hudson delivers us a blissfully ignorant narrator who becomes a drooling spokesman for both jarheaded propaganda and anti-war vituperation. The letter vacillates between tirades of trite loyalty and expressions of desperate insanity, thereby suggesting the requisite mental chemistry for fighting a nameless, faceless “enemy” for a nameless, faceless cause. “We went into Kuwait and kicked some major towelhead ass!” he writes Mr. Bush. “I felt for a moment as if it were truly World War III, or, more precisely, Hell, and here we were, endowed by God Almighty—Manifest Destiny come back to the Holy Land to cast out the Prince of Darkness himself.”

Thus the rhetoric of patriotism skips along until the predictable closing line, “SEMPER FIDELES.” But then there’s the issue of those little pills, experiments whose effects incubated and were now manifesting themselves in some rather odd ways. Lavern recounts how one afternoon back in Kuwait he found himself at the center of intense laughter. As his troops became hysterical, he joined in the fun, not exactly sure what the joke was. “But when I glanced down,” he explains, “I immediately stopped laughing. Because there, on my second rib up on my left side, was a perfectly shaped human ear.” There’s something about the way Laverne describes this gross deformity—”on my second rib on my left side”—that made me internalize the image to the point of nausea. Mrs. Laverne wasn’t too happy either. The night that James Laverne supposedly showed his wife the ear, he recalls, “the house was very quiet, except when I heard Mrs. Laverne sobbing in the bathroom and later when I woke up in the middle of the night and Mrs. Laverne was screaming at me.”

The remarkable letter devolves into a sad (and, weirdly, humorous) litany of emotional and mental disintegration that bottoms out when Laverne finally convinces his wife to return to bed. He reaches over to caress her head and discovers, as he tells President Bush, “a perfect shiny white tooth.” And not just a tooth, but “one of many teeth, two rows of teeth, to be exact, set inside an honest to God mouth, with lips and everything else that comes with a mouth.” Unsure, he explores the protrusion. “It was soft, sir, really soft.” And then recounts how “a tongue darted out and licked the spot on the lip I had just touched. Then the mouth said, ‘Hi, Laverne.’” When Laverne wraps up his note, he pleads, “I was wondering if you could do an old friend a favor and write Mrs. Laverne a short note to tell her that she should come home with Jimmy, Jr., so that we can be a family again.” And with that, Hudson reminds us that, for many veterans, the real war begins when the fighting ends.

The six remaining stories in Hudson’s collection similarly portray the attempt of a Sherwood Anderson-like grotesque to negotiate the muck of war by phasing in and out of reality, whatever that is. Hudson includes tales in which General Schwarzkopf reflects on his birth (“I thought I was dead, but really I’d just been born, pushed out into the bright light by the big, powerful walls of my mom’s vagina”), an Arab boy psychologically taunts a Mexican-American soldier (“Oly sheet. Who’s de weetback?”), and a soldier’s girlfriend writes him in Kuwait to tell him that she performed fellatio on his friend “so that I could feel as close as possible to you.” These stories are sad and funny, rough and smooth, grounded and hallucinogenic. And while they never bring us into the bowels of combat—that is, while all the grenades turn out to be fake—they take us close enough to a horrific brink swarming with desperados to make the rather timely case that wars never end.

Contributing writer James McWilliams lives in Austin.