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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-biologicalwarfare 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 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 Andersonlike 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, powerboy psychologically taunts a MexicanAmerican soldier \(“Oly sheet.Who’s de 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 fakethey take us close enough to a horrific brink swarming with desperados to make the rather timely case that wars never end. Contributing writerJames McWilliams lives in Austin. From the cover of Dear Mr. President 4/11/03 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 25