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Not Your Grandfather's History Book

A new anthology of fiction lampoons our country's most iconic moments, and reveals the truth about our current political climate.
 
 
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Since the devastating blow of Sept. 11, the United States has suffered one black eye after another. The preponderance of punches has been the direct result of the Bush administration's unrelenting hubris and a war whose causes remain inexplicable. This is such a bleak era, in fact, that just last week, pundits characterized the violence between Israel and the Hezbollah as the start of World War III.

In times like these, people are starved for information. We become glued to our 24-hour newscasts and war blogs, desperate for whatever news is made available to us, regardless of whether it is grounded in fact. Yet, as a new anthology of fiction illustrates, these are also the times in which we can almost pinpoint when lies and misinformation slip onto the pages of our history books.

A Fictional History of the United States With Huge Chunks Missing (Akashic Books) is a whimsical anthology of short stories and artwork that lampoons our country's most iconic moments, as well as the history books that lionized them. Compiled by editors T Cooper and Adam Mansbach, this collection takes its name from Howard Zinn's anti-textbook masterpiece, A People's History of the United States. Unlike Zinn's classic work, which gave a voice to the voiceless from America's past, the 17 stories in A Fictional History tackle the major events found in most history texts. By personalizing these moments, however, A Fictional History moves them from the big bold print of the textbook page all the way over to the margin, and with a droll brio that bears no trace of didacticism whatsoever.

Thus, we get stories like Benjamin Weissman's "West," a gritty spoof on the Donner Party and westward expansion in which a castrated but literate sex offender that a wagon train of settlers have feasted upon suddenly ain't sitting quite right. Or Kate Bornstein's "Dixie Bell: The Further Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," in which Huck has transformed himself into a prostitute servicing Civil War generals down in New Orleans.

In T Cooper's "The Story That Refuses to Die," the Lindbergh baby is back and being interviewed by Gay Aviation Today on his father's salacious behavior. While A Fictional History is structured chronologically and adheres well to its thematic thread, stories like these speak to the freewheeling fun the writers must have had in their historical interpretations.

Perhaps a more apt example of the book's tongue-in-cheek technique is Valerie Miner's "Apprehensions." In this story, the xenophobia that followed Sept. 11 compels the protagonist to recall her paranoid childhood during McCarthyism. Miner links the two cultures of fear with a light touch, though the story leaves the reader with a queasy sense of déja vu. Among the other contributors are cartoonist David Rees of "Get Your War On" fame; Ron Kovic, author of Born on the Fourth of July ; short story writer Amy Bloom; and cartoonist-rapper Keith Knight.

Both Cooper and Mansbach say they regarded themselves more as curators than editors during the compilation process. "The pieces are really reflective of the way in which individual writers grapple with a counter-narrative to American history," Mansbach said.

Cooper and Mansbach have become outraged by the quickness of news cycles and the surfeit of misinformation being spoonfed to the American public by the Bush administration. For Cooper, the need for A Fictional History became clear when she saw Michael Hayden, then director of the NSA, telling reporters that people in his line of work don't discuss what they've done until it's on the History Channel. "The guys running the show like the fact that no one will talk about it for the next 50 years," exclaimed Cooper. Likewise, Mansbach took umbrage when Reagan's funeral procession completely erased the Abu Ghraib prison scandal in the minds of most Americans.

According to Cooper, A Fictional History truly showcases what historical fiction writers can do best: invent stories that reveal the truth about our current political climate. Nothing could be truer than in the collection's final story, David Alarcn's "The Anodyne Dreams of Various Imbeciles." Ironically, this story is set in the near future, a topic few history books dare to touch. In this hilarious tale, the Arizona senator has just shot the president during a hunting trip. Undaunted by his subsequent amputation, the president presses on with the war being waged on his homefront. Sound familiar? The eerie part is Alarcn wrote this piece prior to Dick Cheney's similar snafu. Let's hope the FBI doesn't go looking for Alarcn in August, when A Fictional History is released.

A schedule of events and readings for "A Fictional History" is on the Akashic Books website.

Zack Pelta-Heller is a regular contributor to AlterNet.