The Barnes & Noble Review
Most war novels are burdened by the literary landmarks which came before them. Writers like Erich Maria Remarque, Norman Mailer, James Jones, and Tim O'Brien set the bar almost impossibly high for contemporary writers.
Karl Marlantes' debut novel attempts to meet the challenge of its predecessors with sincerity and authenticity. His tale of a Marine company in Vietnam, Matterhorn, puts the reader in the thick of combat like few others I've read. It comes as no surprise to learn that Marlantes served with the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam and, as a lieutenant, was awarded the Navy Cross for leading an assault on a hill just south of the DMZ in 1969. Marlantes started writing Matterhorn in 1975 and worked on it steadily for the next three decades until a galley (which originally weighed in at 1,600 pages) caught the eye of Grove/Atlantic editor Morgan Entrekin.
The novel mobilizes an ambitiously large cast of characters as a depleted company of Marines overtakes and holds a hilltop against a much larger force from the North Vietnam Army:
The hill, one of many similar unnamed hills in the area, all of them over a mile high and shrouded by cold monsoon rain and clouds, had the misfortune of being just a little higher than the others. For this reason, a staff officer sitting fifty-five kilometers to the east at Fifth Marine Division headquarters in Dong Ha had picked it to be flattened and shorn of vegetation to accommodate an artillery battery of 105-millimeter howitzers. The same officer had also named it Matterhorn, in keeping with the present vogue of naming new fire support bases after Swiss mountains.
Despite the attempt by military brass to instill a sense of alpine peace among the men with the name Matterhorn, the hill soon becomes little more than a patch of ground pocked with rocket craters and soaked with American blood. In the course of the novel, the Marines are ordered to take, abandon, and then re-take this piece of land that "none of them cared about."
At the center of the novel is Marlantes' alter-ego, a lieutenant named Waino Mellas, whose combat experience is as green as his uniform -- something he is all too keenly aware of:
As Mellas plodded slowly up the hill, with Fisher next to him and Hamilton automatically following with the radio, he became embarrassed by the sound his boots made as they pulled free of the mud, fearing that it would draw attention to the fact that they were still shiny and black.
A Marine recruit fresh out of high school, Mellas feels "awkward and incompetent" once he arrives in Asia, unable even to remember his soldiers' names. He's politically ambitious, dreaming of the day when he can take command of a company -- even though it may come at the expense of the current commander being killed.
The first casualty in the novel, however, is a Marine's manhood. Literally. Marlantes tells how a leech crawls inside a sergeant's penis, leaving the company medic to take desperate measures, described in excruciating thoroughness. As squirm-inducing as such moments may be, the vivid details of combat experience are what propel Matterhorn forward. For instance, when the first battle scene arrives, nearly 100 pages into the novel, Marlantes succinctly describes how it begins: "Then the jungle ripped apart. It was as if someone had torn a sheet of solid sound." Or this, about a platoon on patrol: "They walked with a constant feeling of irritation and frustration. A piece of gear catching on a branch became a monstrous injustice. Bumping into someone from behind because of fatigue-dulled senses brought out unreasonable anger rather than the usual sarcastic comment."
Matterhorn aims much of its fire at the blinkered generals moving units around a map like so many chess pieces. The Matterhorn is, essentially, a useless hill and has little strategic value; but the senior officers plotting the war from 50 miles away don't care about real estate, they're more worried about body counts. As one officer says, "It's attrition that counts in this war. Turf doesn't mean jack shit." The fate of a company and its men hangs on the brainstorming back at headquarters. The difference between a man walking out of the jungle alive or getting blown to fleshy bits often rests in the political ambition or tactical stupidity of the well-fed colonels wearing starched uniforms in their cool, dry headquarters.
While Marlantes is skilled at conducting large battle scenes, he sometimes falls short at the level of his sentences. One wishes he would relax enough to trust the reader; instead, he (or his editors) feels the need to define every acronym and military term as they appear in the narrative -- despite the fact that there is a 30-page glossary at the end of the novel.
Moreover, any writer engaging imaginatively with the history of American soldiers at war has a double problem. On one side are the pop-culture clichés and stereotypes which have been crammed into our heads by war movies, National Guard recruiting ads, and video games. Marlantes largely steers clear of these, but the question of Matterhorn's literary heritage is a tougher issue. It's a book which most obviously lives in the shadow of Mailer's debut, The Naked and the Dead, and while Marlantes reaches for the brutal power of Mailer's sentences, his book never quite matches the visceral punch of that World War Two classic.
But once he hits his stride (and most of the military jargon has been exhaustively defined), Marlantes displays all the confidence of a veteran who knows what he's talking about. For all the complexities of the Matterhorn battle, Marlantes explains tactical operations -- from the briefing room to the battlefield -- with precision and clarity, rarely dumbing it down for the reader.
Marked on every page by the blood, sweat, and fears of combat, Matterhorn calls us to once again confront war's dreadful appeal to the imagination, and its even more dreadful price in real lives.
From Barnes & Noble
From his earliest days on the ground, Lieutenant Waino Mellas
Princeton educated, fresh, green, and uneasy in his new fatigues has
second-guessed his decision to become a marine. Yet here he is, an officer
leading a rifle platoon in a desolate corner of South Vietnam. The men in
Marlantes's gut-wrenching first novel young, raw, and far from home
are facing the toughest trial by fire imaginable. Dumped on a jungle
hilltop that's shrouded in monsoon rains and clouds, they're too crippled
by fatigue, boredom, and the dearth of supplies to question policy. Like
most soldiers, they follow orders whether they make sense or not, in a
war too complex for them to figure out.
Authentic and unflinching, with dialogue so vivid it plunges readers
squarely into the inferno of war, Matterhorn is both white-knuckled
adventure and superb literature. From the smallest details the music,
the gear, and the C rations; the smells, the heat, and the humidity to
the most profound judgments made high up the chain of command, it's a
tour de force of storytelling. A celebration of the courage and camaraderie
of our young men in uniform, and a chilling indictment of the politics of
war, Matterhorn is an unforgettable and vital testament that keeps alive
the thousands of stories of heroism during what some might consider one
of history's darkest and most regrettable moments.
The New York Times Book Review -
Chapter after chapter, battle after battle, Marlantes pushes you through what may be one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnamor any war. It's not a book so much as a deployment, and you will not return unaltered…Matterhorn is a raw, brilliant account of war that may well serve as a final exorcism for one of the most painful passages in American history.
The Washington Post -
Ironically, the best parts of Matterhorn aren't the battle scenes,…Rather it is Marlantes's treatment of pre-combat tension and rear-echelon politics. It's these in-between spaces that create the real terror of Matterhorn: military and racial politics; fragging that threatens the unit with implosion; and night watch in the jungle, where tigers are as dangerous as the NVA. Given the long list of stellar works, fiction and nonfiction, to come from the Vietnam experience, one might question what more can be said about it. In some ways Matterhorn isn't new at all, but it reminds us of the horror of all war by laying waste to romantic notions and napalming the cool factor of video games and "Generation Kill."
Thirty years in the making, Marlantes’s epic debut is a dense, vivid narrative spanning many months in the lives of American troops in Vietnam as they trudge across enemy lines, encountering danger from opposing forces as well as on their home turf. Marine lieutenant and platoon commander Waino Mellas is braving a 13-month tour in Quang-Tri province, where he is assigned to a fire-support base and befriends Hawke, older at 22; both learn about life, loss, and the horrors of war. Jungle rot, leeches dropping from tree branches, malnourishment, drenching monsoons, mudslides, exposure to Agent Orange, and wild animals wreak havoc as brigade members face punishing combat and grapple with bitterness, rage, disease, alcoholism, and hubris. A decorated Vietnam veteran, the author clearly understands his playing field (including military jargon that can get lost in translation), and by examining both the internal and external struggles of the battalion, he brings a long, torturous war back to life with realistic characters and authentic, thrilling combat sequences. Marlantes’s debut may be daunting in length, but it remains a grand, distinctive accomplishment. (Apr.)
Even as the Vietnam War recedes into the past, the despair, confusion, and mythology it generated retains a grip on our culture. Debut novelist Marlantes offers a realistic, in-the-trenches look at that war. Matterhorn is a remote jungle base of operations held by the marines. We follow a young reserve lieutenant, Waino Mellas, as he nervously begins command of a squad ordered to take out a North Vietnamese machine gun nest; afterward, the squad is sent into the jungle for obscure reasons. This is the beginning of a long and murderous journey, with little food or water, constant rain, impassable terrain, and enemy ambushes. The soldiers bond with one another, but their faults and divisions are magnified, as racial tensions mount and cultural differences are revealed. The battle scenes, at which the author excels, are frequent, brutal, and viscerally energetic, and the skillfully rendered dialog reveals a bunch of strangers attempting to communicate in life-defeating circumstances. In the end, there are no real victors. VERDICT Obviously not a brief, cheery read, this is a major work that will be a valuable addition to any permanent collection. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/09.]—Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. at Oneonta
An ambitious first novel about the Vietnam War, written over three decades by a Marine veteran of the fight. Less melodramatic and more realistic than Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, with which it invites comparison, Marlantes's long but simply structured narrative recounts the unhappy lot of a Marine lieutenant, usually called only Mellas, and the platoon under his command. Stuck in a firebase called Matterhorn, up near the Demilitarized Zone, Mellas, who is handsome, smart, canny and politically astute, if perhaps not a "natural hunter," finds himself in the unenviable position of having what seems like the entire army of North Vietnam bearing down on the post. The long battle that ensues, framing the book, tests the Marines' mettle, and it fells many of them. Marlantes, who saw combat, writes with authority on every aspect of Marine life, from the terrible chow (in one fine moment, he describes an improbable meal made of eggs, chocolate, Tabasco sauce and apricots) to the complex rules ("Bullshit, sir!...I'm a fucking squad leader and squad leaders can have stashes") and the hard realities of Vietnam, from the fragging of unpopular brass and NCOs to death in all kinds of unpleasant ways ("Imagine dying of thirst in a monsoon"). The combat scenes, and there are many, are finely rendered. Overall, the narrative is a little predictable, however, and it offers only a few surprises of character development and plot that can't be seen coming from afar, including a tense, expertly delivered moment in which Mellas attempts to snipe at an NVA colonel: "Mellas waited as patiently as an animal. Time stopped. Only this one task. Wait for the bastard to turn around so he could see the bulletscoming."Readable and well written, though not quite in the class of Tim O'Brien, Philip Caputo, Michael Herr, Robert Stone and other top-flight literary chroniclers of the war in Vietnam.
What People Are Saying
"Here we see heroism and sacrifice among the front-line troops, greed and deceit among the high officers and politicians. This Vietnam novel is as much a condemnation of politics as it is of war, even as it is a glorification of the emotional ties that bind the most unlikely of comrades forever, through and beyond life into death. As a combat veteran and writer, I find the story, the prose, and the characters of Congressional Medal quality."--(Chester Aaron, author of About Us)
"Matterhorn is a terrific, towering novel. Marine Lieutenant Marlantes does for the Vietnam War what Lieutenant Sassoon did for the war in Flanders; what Sergeant Mailer did for the war in the Pacific; what Tenente Hemingway did for the war in Italy. He takes you there, shakes you, and never lets you go. Matterhorn will surely take its place on every armchair-warrior's bookshelf, shoulder to shoulder with Memoirs of an Infantry Officer, The Naked and the Dead, and A Farewell to Arms."--(Prof Jon Stallworthy, Editor, The Oxford Book of War Poetry)
"Marlantes has a knack for dropping period details into his prose without confining or delaying his story. Each of these details contributes to our knowledge of what it must have been like to serve in a war that the rest of us only argued about. We always knew it was hell, but now we know how. Marlantes has re-created an environment that is disappearing from collective memory and in so doing performed the public service of keeping it vibrant and alive in all its horror. It's true. If you weren't there, you are now."--(Paul Gambaccini, author of Love Letters)
Matterhorn is one of the most powerful and moving novels about combat, the Vietnam War, and war in general that I have ever read.
Matterhorn is a novel of great authority and humanity. It builds inexorably to a devastating and magnificent final movement. (Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain)
Matterhorn is a masterful and thrilling drama about an event of national importance that we have barely understood. Marlantes conjures grace out of suffering, honor from despair, sense out of nonsense. The men and women of this story have long deserved a homecoming, and we needed to hear their true story. Marlantes has delivered a heartbreaking achievement. He has written a timeless work of literary fiction. (Doug Stanton, author of Horse Soldiers)
These are the words I wrote down while reading Matterhorn: authentic, funny, heartbreaking, infuriating, devastating. This great book crawled under my skin on the first page, and I suspect it will remain there for a very long time. (David Finkel, author of The Good Soldiers)
Matterhorn is that rare modern novel destined to become a classic. Karl Marlantes has written a riveting and harrowing portrait of young men at war. (Vince Flynn, author of Pursuit of Honor)
"A gripping narrative, powerful and unflinching. There are scenes in this wonderful novel that I defy you to forget."--(Michael Fredrickson, author of A Defense for the Dead)
Robert Olen Butler
As warfare shapeshifts its way into a new century, the publication of Matterhorn is perfectly timed. Karl Marlantes tells a riveting, richly detailed personal tale of soldiers in Vietnam, and in doing so, he brilliantly illuminates the defining war of the last half of the twentieth century. Matterhorn reminds us, profoundly, of our flawed humanity, capable of individual grace and collective horror. (Robert Olen Butler, author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain)
Unforgettable . . . A beautifully crafted novel of unrivaled authenticity and power, filled with jungle heroism, crackerjack inventiveness, mud, blood, brotherhood, hatred, healing, terror, bureaucracy, politics, unfathomable waste, and unfathomable love. (Christina Robb, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of This Changes Everything)
Never have we seen the particular horrors and challenges of Vietnam so richly explored, and never have we felt the tactile experience of the war depicted with such mesmerizing force. We see the big picture, but as with all great novels, it's the tiny detailsthe mud, the leeches, the adrenaline-drenched dread of combat, and the tender joy of comradeshipthat linger with the reader long after the story is over. (Hampton Sides, author of Ghost Soldiers and Hellhound on His Trail)
"Only rarely does a book like Matterhorn come along. It combines great American literature with sweaty palm adventure. You neither have to love war nor hate it to find yourself spell struck by Marlantes's rare gift of dialogue and revelation of gut wrenching combat."--(Mike Harreschou, author of Chain of Evidence)