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Gabe Hudson: Dear Mr. President


Dear Mr. President

Author: Gabe Hudson
Publisher: Knopf

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Gabe Hudson's web site, gabehudson.com, is sheer lunacy. Ostensibly an information page for the "School Of Obligatory Survival," it promises students who "do not wish to remain alive, but also do not wish to be, necessarily, dead" the opportunity to attain a halfway-between state called "Leath." There, people can "cavort between life and death with ease," change gender or species, see with their eyes shut, or "develop the skills to replace their parents with a set of mannequins." But the madness of the Leath-inducing course descriptions is in direct service to Hudson's debut fiction anthology, Dear Mr. President, which documents that breed of insanity in detail. The book's eight surreal short stories mostly focus on Gulf War veterans who are either in Leath-like altered states of perception or simply psychotic, if there's any difference. In the title story, lance corporal James Laverne comes home from the Gulf with an ear growing on his ribcage; it's unclear whether it's a symptom of psychosis or a result of biological warfare. Laverne's wife clearly perceives the manifestation, but then, she has an evil, lying mouth growing on the back of her head, and their son's nose has disappeared, which complicates the situation further. Another story, "The American Green Machine," takes the form of a letter beamed into the brain of a one-legged man whose political beliefs and hard life single him out as worthy of the Marines—and ripe for a surreptitiously installed head implant that makes the contact possible. Unless, of course, the entire scenario is a wishful dream. The book's longest piece, "Notes From A Bunker Along Highway 8," centers on G.D., a Green Beret who, after seeing a vision of a debauched George Washington in a hot tub, wanders away from an intense Gulf War battle to live with a wounded compatriot in an abandoned bunker full of chimpanzees. Like many of the book's other installments, "Highway 8" is both vision quest and adventure tale. G.D. seems blissfully unaware of his altered state; even when he shuts his companion into a chimp cage and later prepares to eat him, his narration provides the illusion of lucidity that his actions lack. That's typical of Hudson's protagonists, who kill soldiers in Iraq and antagonistic gang members at home with equal clarity, and who describe their respect for President Bush and their supernaturally induced cross-dressing with the same sober aplomb. Hudson, a former Marine whose stories have appeared in McSweeney's and The New Yorker, writes like a grounded, focused combination of Chuck Palahniuk and Kurt Vonnegut. He's less choppy than either, but he occupies a similarly queasy quasi-reality that can be simultaneously entertaining and baffling. His ambiguous stories read as metaphors or case histories, as widely symbolic or unsettlingly literal. That shifting ambiguity, which Hudson's characters and readers experience in equal measure, makes these stories as compelling as they are disturbing.