I posted about how I came to pick up Karl Marlantes epic Vietnam novel Matterhorn after listening to two veterans discuss it on an airplane. The paperback that I picked up almost immediately upon landing begins with four pages of excerpts of glowing reviews from The New York Times Book Review to Leathneck, the magazine of the US Marines. A quote from The New York Times Book Review, written by Sebastian Junger, seems the most apt: “It’s not a book so much as a deployment, and you will not return unaltered.” Exactly.
The book begins with a fresh lieutenant’s arrival in Vietnam. Second Lieutenant Mellas is a green college graduate who has passed on Harvard Law School to serve in the Marines by choice. The young soldier has in mind getting some combat experience as a resume builder for a later career in public service. Mellas is on his first patrol, soaking wet from rain, covered in leeches that are dropping from the trees, and afraid of asking stupid questions that will expose his ignorance of how all of this is supposed to work. He quickly begins to question his decision to be there.
Early on, there is a graphic injury that a soldier suffers that has nothing to do with combat. This episode serves to quickly underscore that a jungle on the far side of the world is an inherently dangerous place to be even without all of the teenagers carrying guns. Fighting the enemy is just part of it. Mellas soon learns that forming a disgruntled and diverse group pf young men into a cohesive unit is among the hardest parts of the job. For those of us who didn’t serve, the sudden drop into a war zone is as disorienting for the reader as it is for Mellas. The green lieutenant soon gets more than enough combat experience when his unit is picked to help secure a hilltop with the code name Matterhorn.
I’m not a big reader of war novels, as I mentioned in my earlier post. For its part, Matterhorn does not seem to be the usual war novel. It does not glorify war or the US military nor does it demonize the military or war in general. Instead, Marlantes’s objective seems to have been to write the most honest war novel he could. Marlantes was himself a young lieutenant in Vietnam, and he has reportedly been writing the novel ever since he got home. The novel has the absolute ring of truth to it thanks to the author’s experience and his almost life-long dedication to describing it as faithfully as possible. There is also a sense that the novel served as therapy for Marlantes. He dedicates the book to his children to his children “who grew up with the good and bad of having a Marine combat veteran as a father.”
I read Matterhorn cover-to-cover as quickly as work, home responsibilities, and a basic need for sleep would require. Marlantes develops his characters so fully that about halfway through the novel I explained to my wife that if a movie of the book existed, I would stop reading immediately to go watch it. I had to know what was going to happen next. When I reached the end, I carefully read through the glossary of military terms at the back just to keep on reading. Incredibly, the novel only covers the first few months of Mellas’s deployment. Theoretically, Marlantes could crank out two or three more novels of Bravo Company’s experience in Vietnam. He’ll have to tackle them in less than the 30+ years it took to write Matterhorn. If he writes them, I’ll be in line to buy my copies.