THE WHITE DONKEY Review
“I hope you find whatever it is you’re looking for.”
THE WHITE DONKEY is the brainchild of a former infantry Marine* named Max Uriarte, whose standard fare of three panel comic strips about the various shitty-ities and fuckery chronicles of life as an enlisted Marine on his infinitely popular webcomic, Terminal Lance, makes way for a more fleshed out, serious 200-page exploration of what Hollywood fails to tell you about the Global War on Terror. This isn’t high-octane bullshit of cool guys with beards running around fucking shit up a la ZERO DARK THIRTY, THE HURT LOCKER, or ACT OF VALOR, this is one of the most genuine looks at the ennui and nihilistic banality of war that is accessible to “snake people ” (threw up in my mouth as I typed that, the shit I do for you guys, my loyal readership) available on shelves today.
The story follows the before, during, and after of a deployment to Iraq in 2007, and follows the (fictional, though inspired from real life) exploits of a one fictional Lance Corporal Abraham ‘Abe’ Belatzeko (a character that began as a caricature of Max himself in the TL strips) and his battle buddy, LCpl Jesus Garcia (the Gildenstern to Abe’s Rosencrantz, if you’ll humor the stretched analogy) two junior enlisted Marines a long way from their homes in Oregon in the Zaidon region of Iraq, south of Fallujah, where the war was slow, until it wasn’t.
The primary theme of this novel falls into the same vein of many books chronicling the Global War on Terror from the average foot soldier’s perspective — of how fighting an insurgent, unconventional threat was something that most warfighters didn’t expect or were prepared for. The sudden bursts of violence, often from an unseen enemy, such as an IED or sniper, alternating with long stretches of nothingness, and how the only way to respond to the natural instinct of constantly being wound-tight in such an environment is to become numb to the violence. Following that, other common bedfollows with these sorts of stories include threads on substance abuse playing a role in dealing with loss, and how post-traumatic stress acts as a barrier to the reintegration into society. Unique to this novel, however, is an exploration on what it means to be a ‘Marine’; Abe breaks many of the tropes for a stereotypical infantry Marine in that he’s intelligent**, not quite a patriot, not chomping at the bit to kill people, not a smoker nor a drinker, lacking zeal and motivation common to his brethren, and not the biggest fan of authority. Because of his almost Hemingway-esque choice to embrace the suck and his personality quirks, he comes into conflict with a lot of the guys in his platoon, and this plays a major role in the novel’s climax and denouement.
The illustrations are of a marvelous minimalist aesthetic Max has popularized in his comic strips. Max’s use of color to convey the location and time is a brilliant technique, using it to help fill negative space, and as shade and coloring, almost anchoring the memory in that particular hue. Similarly, he uses different colored/shaped eyepro*** to help distinguish the different characters beyond their facial features and speech (bubble) patterns, which is a boon in an environments where everyone’s wearing the same..well, everything. It also serves as a refreshing dash of color in a somewhat bleakly colored landscape. Make no mistake though, just because the style makes more with less, doesn’t make it any of the more graphic or emotional panels less so.
All in all, THE WHITE DONKEY presents a story anybody who’s read a novel on the Iraq War (more loosely, any form of insurgency or terrorism-based conflict i.e. Vietnam, Serbia,) would instantly recognize, but presents it in a fresh format that is digestible to salt-dogs who’ve lived and breathed this conflict, and dewy-eyed civilians whose only experience of war is Call of Duty. The emotion is no less raw, and the experience no less personal than the first time I’ve read a war novel, and it will keep you hungry for more until you reach the dedications at the end of the book, equally stunned at the finale’s suddenness and feeling a deep sense of fulfillment, almost like your soul breathing a sigh of relief. THE WHITE DONKEY’s only fault is how short it is, but that’s nobody’s fault — Max had busted his ass drawing and redrawing The White Donkey, and I wouldn’t have wanted it artificially lengthened or stuffed with fluff. The only reason its brevity is a negative lies in how I ravenously tore through the book in a half of an evening, and then spent several more hours poring over the careful insertions of hints and clues, symbolism, and other minor details in several subsequent read-throughs, because it was just that good.
Further Reading (AKA similar subject matter & themes)
BILLY LYNN’S LONG HALFTIME WALK by Ben Fountain
SPENT SHELL CASINGS: 25 (AND 5) STORIES by David Rose
REDEPLOYMENT by Phil Klay
JARHEAD by Anthony Swofford.
TRIBE by Sebastian Junger
*Yes, I know there’s all the nonsense of ‘once a Marine always a Marine’ but it’s a lot more convenient to refer to someone no longer enlisted as a ‘former’ Marine. Suck my dick, linguistic/military history purists.
**I’m not calling infantrymen stupid, but as Garcia mentions in a conversation he has with Abe, Garcia’s low ASVAB score only qualified him for Motor Transportation and the infantry, whereas Abe’s higher score qualified him for just about any job the Marines had to offer him.
***Eyewear that offers ballistic protection that is usually required to be worn by servicemembers as part of a larger protective ensemble when deployed and in a zone that is dangerous.