Thursday, January 19, 2017

Review: Terminal Lance: The White Donkey

Terminal Lance: The White Donkey Terminal Lance: The White Donkey by Maximilian Uriarte
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Most of the good contemporary war fiction I read – Phil Klay’s Redeployment, Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, or Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds – makes it clear that much of the story is about boredom. It’s about the anxiety of waiting for something big and terrible to happen. There’s no story without those frightening events, but they’re anomalies. The real matter is the stultifying routine in the anticipation of them.

If you’re narrating and much of what you have to tell is anti-narration – if much of it is the opposite of story – then you have to figure out ways to show the nothing-happens part. Those strong novels find different ways of solving that narrative problem, and I recommend them all, but Uriarte has found a different and striking solution. This is a graphic novel, and the pictures carry much of that nothing.

There are pages here without words, and pages where the words are largely the noise of people filling the silence. And there are illustrations that move very little from one frame to the next, showing the rich detail of nothing happening. The end brings that forward in subtle and powerful ways. There is a 20- page wordless sequence in which we see only Abe lunging toward the bathroom to throw up. That sounds overdone, but trust me, it’s powerful.

Talking only about technique sells this short, however. Abe has gone to Iraq for reasons he forgets almost as soon as he arrives. He befriends Garcia, and the two of them navigate the uptight rule-boundedness of their wartime experience. We see elements in the Catch-22 vein – one officer, having misplaced his own rifle, creates a “drill” obligating the entire platoon to look for it before they can leave for a break – and we see the old Dear-John conflict of a young man feeling estranged from the woman he loves or thinks he loves.

And then there is the strange poetry of the white donkey of the title. In a work that’s this ambitious in terms of its emotional insight and geo-political range, it’s a real surprise to find such a layer of artistic insight. The donkey may mean nothing. In fact, I hardly noticed it when it first appeared. But it’s a kind of symbol that haunts Abe and that Uriarte brings into the story with surprising subtlety.

There’s a pointlessness to the experience of Iraq as Uriarte sees it, but the mission itself doesn’t seem to be pointless. We watch Abe grow from an awkward boy to a haunted man, and we really do ‘watch.’ Uriarte fills him out as the work progresses, and our final images show him with broader shoulders and a kind of hard-won wisdom.

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