September 11, the War on Terror, the invasion of Iraq . . . . Why not explore our new reality through fiction, the truest gauge of the national psyche? That was Elliott’s bright idea. And the result? A deeply impressive collection of 26 previously unpublished stories.
Novelist Elliott (What It Means to Love You, 2002, etc.) has chosen a dynamite opener: “The President’s New Clothes,” by Anne Ursu. Using the familiar gimmick of the body-switch, Ursu has Dubya waking up in the body of a Minnesotan kid. What follows is sunny, upbeat and lethal, the perfect fable for an empty-suit presidency. Four stories focus on 9/11 and its immediate aftermath; not surprisingly, the surreal version (“Mr. Mxyzptlk’s Opus,” by Ben Greenman) is as effective as realistic treatments like the “End-of-the-World Sex,” by Tsaurah Litzhy, which highlights the correlation of sex and death. Two fine stories examine the effect of politics and terrorism on personal relationships. In Alicia Erian’s “The Winning Side,” husband and wife protest together the detention of immigrants, yet perversely their marriage drifts further onto the rocks, while in “Should I Be Scared?” by Amanda Eyre Ward, the anthrax scare opens up a rift in another marriage. Six authors take on the Persian Gulf wars. In “Freedom Oil,” Anthony Swofford has an oilman put together a showbiz sendoff for our boys at San Diego airport. Two marines fresh out of boot camp are sucked into a swirl of sex, liquor, and phony patriotism. The flip side is the story that cannot be told too often, seldom better done than here: the homecoming of the soldier who is still living with the horror (“The Designated Marksman,” Otis Haschemeyer). Two other gems must be mentioned: the wickedly on-target notes of sessions with public figures by a real-life dominatrix (“All in a Day’s Work,” by Mistress Morgana), and a small masterpiece of absurdist logic by the Palestinian Nasri Hajjaj, about a man who slaughters his family and is promptly honored by his nation’s leader (“I Believe I’m in Love With the Government”).
A superb collection, without a single dud. Grab it.