But what a brilliant novel.
Many reviewers of Matterhorn have begun their acclaim with some variation of "I'm not normally a fan of war novels, but I loved this." They're right on the mark — my sentiments exactly. True, this a war novel to the core — there's blood, guts and gruesomeness. But it's a novel that also moves beyond the theater of war and the Xs and Os to examine other themes of more universal appeal, like race relations, guilt, despair, fear, friendship, and importantly, the pros and cons of ambition.
But it's the characters that make this story. There's the seemingly fearless Vancouver who always volunteers for point on patrols, the 23-year-old First Lieutenant Fitch who is unable to extricate himself from the doghouse of his commanding officer, the platoon leader Goodwin who calls everyone Jack because "it's easier than remembering his name," the executive officer Hawke who becomes fast friends with Mellas, and Cassidy, the racist lifer who draws the ongoing ire of the black Marines.
And so we follow these Marines through the bush and watch as they encounter ever-increasing hardships. Just when you think it couldn't possibly get worse, it does. And then it gets worse again. The opening scene in the novel sets the tone. Lieutenant Mellas has just arrived on Matterhorn (a fictional hill near the Laotian border) to begin his tour commanding a platoon, and one of his squad leaders has to be medevaced back to base because he has a leech stuck in his urethra. Then, there are the never-ending, nerve-shattering patrols through the jungle, a week-long forced marches in the rain with no food, a soldier attacked by a tiger, and finally, the actual combat itself.
All of this adds up to a novel that, while horrific, is still immensely readable — even for the squeamish. It's universal. It's intense. And it's absolutely absorbing. Marlantes, a decorated Vietnam veteran himself, wrote this novel over the course of 30 years. The polish shows. This has classic potential. Highly recommended!