In the title story of Gabe Hudson‘s devastatingly funny debut collection Dear Mr. President (Knopf, $19), a vet writes to George Bush père about his particular strain of Gulf War Syndrome. “I know you’re probably busy right now ruling over the Free World, sir,” notes the Marine, who “went into Kuwait and kicked some major towelhead ass” and now has a supernumerary ear growing out of his chest. The problem is contagious; his wife has an extra mouth on the back of her head and their son’s nose has disappeared.
Hudson, who has written for McSweeney’s and The New Yorker, was a rifleman in the Marine reserves. “My generation, the younger generation, inherited all these war myths from the Vietnam Generation and the so-called Greatest Generation, and so I wanted to write a book that spoke to my generation, and that spoke to the farcical quality of war,” he tells the Express. “The Persian Gulf War — also America’s first censored war — was a hundred-hour virtual war with maybe 130 American casualties, thirty of which were friendly-fire casualties. And then the soldiers came home and were treated as if they were heroes. It was a joke.
“I also wanted to point out the hypocrisy inherent in American foreign policy, and the military’s policy toward homosexuals,” says Hudson, one of whose tales concerns a cross-dressing stealth-fighter pilot. “I don’t think there’s anything more homoerotic than a bunch of sweaty guys fighting another bunch of sweaty guys. I also kind of wanted to debunk the myth of the macho soldier.”
As headlines about Iraq resurface with ever-increasing frequency, he can’t help but think back.
“I’m not sure why Americans want to glorify the deaths of other human beings in our recent history — or why any country does, because America is not alone in this,” he says. “I don’t see why we have to accept the idiocy of previous generations.”
One story in Dear Mr. President works with the explosive richness of a landmined éclair: a Berkeley student named Kurt, whose old rival is away serving in the Gulf as a Navy SEAL, uses intellectual trickery to seduce the rival’s partner.
“In writing a book about war and America, it seemed necessary to include Berkeley,” says Hudson, who lives in New York but is, on West Coast visits, a Cheese Board habitué. “I also have a problem with the self-righteous, on both the left and the right. To me it’s much more courageous to put yourself in a position where you’re empathetic to all sides, more humane, and so I guess I got a dark laugh out of having Kurt come from Berkeley.”