If CNN taught you everything you know about Desert Storm, you probably won’t like Dear Mr. President. That network, and nearly every other major U.S. news outlet, created a new, low standard for war coverage: spoon-fed, short on details, and jingoistically patriotic. Gabe Hudson’s short fiction offers an antidote. The 1999 winner of the John Hawkes Prize in fiction, Hudson has published in the New Yorker, but Dear Mr. President is his first book. Long on grisly details, these stories present a nuanced brand of patriotism—more Springsteen than blank-eyed flag waving.
There were U.S. casualties in Desert Storm, and soldiers came home traumatized and debilitated by mysterious ailments. Of course, maimed and troubled veterans are a consequence of every military conflict, but what’s new about Gulf War vets—and what preoccupies the stories in Dear Mr. President—is the challenge they pose to civilians who think the war was a smart-bomb video game.
Hudson, who was a rifleman in the marine reserves before entering Brown’s creative writing program, knows his territory. Every story in Dear Mr. President deals with soldiers or veterans who have difficulty connecting with reality. One man is convinced he has become his late thirteen-year-old daughter. Another sprouts an ear in the middle of his abdomen and believes the VA doctor who tells him it “had no connection to my service over in Saudi Arabia.”
Hudson’s writing is very good, and very funny, when he is articulating the minds of people in the grip of affliction. His novella, “Notes from a Bunker along Highway 8,” is a fascinating and affecting portrait of a Green Beret who abandons his platoon, renames himself “Help People,” and hides in a bunker doing yoga and offering succor to wounded Iraqis. He sees the war with a ferocious clarity: “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 jerkoffs 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.”
Unfortunately Hudson’s skill at imagining individual minds outstrips his storytelling abilities. And unlike Catch-22, to which this book will inevitably be compared, there is no point at which irony gives way to tragedy and loss. Instead, Dear Mr. President is built of irony upon irony; the stories don’t just strain credulity, they often abandon it altogether. The net effect, ironically, is the inverse of the CNN effect: instead of sanitizing the Gulf War, these stories turn it into such a wildly fabulated tale that it’s hard to believe the war happened at all.
Freelance writer Chad Galts is a former BAM senior editor.