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Gabe Hudson, Lee Smith, Christopher Buckley

So what is most surprising about Gabe Hudson's first collection "Dear Mr. President" (Knopf, $19) is that all of the seven stories, as well as the novella, are absolutely fantastic.

All of Hudson's stories concern the Gulf War and encapsulate not only the madness of wartime but also the insanity that brought the U.S. military to Kuwait in the first place. Every story places a premium on both tragedy and hilarity, bringing the paradox of the American consumer culture to the forefront. In "The Cure as I Found It" a veteran suffering from a bizarre form of Gulf War Syndrome stands up to a local street gang. In "Those Were Your Words Not Mine," a mother who has lost her son during the war begs to be read her son's Dear John letter. In the novella "Notes from a Bunker Along Highway 8," a Green Beret abandons his unit to give medical aid to passing refugees. Throughout the book, the characters' own consciousness of the acts they have committed in the war lashes them with guilt and self-reprisal. The stories all fall into one another showing not only the lives of soldiers, but of all Americans. — Francis W. Decker

Sold Down The River

In "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" Mark Twain called the Mississippi a "monstrous river." While the Mississippi existed long before Huck's exploits, surely it has not been the same since. In the same vein as Huck, "The Last Girls" (Algonquin, $24.95) is Lee Smith's fictional tribute to her own rafting trip down the Mississippi with 15 Hollins College classmates. The year was 1966 and the 950-mile journey extended from Paducah, Ky. to New Orleans. With the confidence of youth, the "girls" headed down the river with absolute certainty that they would get where they were going. And, they did.

The same is true for the five Mary Scott College classmates Smith brings to life in "The Last Girls." In a sequel to their original rafting trip, four friends, now in their 50s, have reunited for a cruise down the mighty river on the luxury steamboat, "The Belle of Natchez." The fifth original adventurer, Baby Ballou, has recently died. The trip serves as a memorial to her, and as a soul-searching voyage for the others.

The story's principal voice is Harriet Holding, a hesitant teacher who has never married. The other last girls include: Catherine Hurt, a sculptor who is suffocating in her third happy marriage; socialite Courtney Gray Ralston, struggling to step away from her Southern Living-style life; and Anna Todd Trethaway, world-famous romance novelist trying to escape the tragedies of her own life through fiction.

Smith infuses her genuine Southern flavor to make "The Last Girls" a compelling read. She has built this inviting novel around the premise that whatever you're like in your youth, you're only more so with age.

— Lee Hall

The Politics of Satire

It's true: Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. And Christopher Buckley's latest proves the point. The blood-red cover is adorned by a photograph of a single strand of pearls, fashioned into a hangman's knot. Satire? You bet — in the best Buckley fashion, but better, more plot-driven than in his previous "Thank You for Smoking" and "God Is My Broker."

In "No Way to Treat a First Lady" (Random House, $24.95), Buckley aims his needle-pointed rapier at the post-O.J. legal profession, while also skewering the dazzlingly debauched nature of politics, politicians, TV news and Hollywood in the 1990s. If you're a cynic, it's a helluva read. If not, well, just sit back and enjoy the merry-go-round ride.

As the novel opens, Ken MacMann, the president of the United States, is sharing a wild romp in the Lincoln bedroom with Babette Van Anka, a Hollywood actress/singer whose favorite song may or may not be "People," if you get my drift. But a priapic problem of an embarrassingly obvious sort gives the game away when he returns to the bedroom he shares with his wife, Beth. Not given to quiet tolerance of the pattern set by so many of her predecessors, the first lady grabs a sterling-silver Paul Revere spittoon and lobs it at the president. The next morning, he's found dead in bed beside her with a Revere monogram in bas relief on his forehead. The first lady, henceforth to be known to the media as Lady Bethmac, is charged with assassination.

For legal help, the first lady turns to an old boyfriend, the man she dumped in favor of MacMann during law school. Boyce "Shameless" Baylor is now one of the nation's best-known and priciest shysters.

Thus is set in motion one of the funniest satires of 2002. Stacking impossibility on top of improbability, yet never losing track of his wacky narrative, Buckley serves up a menu of lurid sexual, legal, media and show-business excess en brochette. And "No Way to Treat a First Lady" is a literary feast fit for a glutton. — Don

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