BOOKS & THE CULTURE War is, Well, BY JAMES MCWILLIAMS I Nuts 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’? Dear Mr. President: Stories and a Novella By Gabe Hudson Knopf 2002 155 pages, $19. onsider this scenario. A young man invites you to his house so he can tell you sto ries. 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 desper ate times for critical minds. So as my heretofore left-leaning political magazines dodge to the right \(The Atlantic, 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 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 but his recognition that war is more than hellin fact, that it’s fantastically absurdhas 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 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 4/11/03
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