Thursday, July 28, 2011

Matterhorn: War Is Hell

During a particularly rough patch — and there are many, many rough patches for the Vietnam War soldiers who inhabit Karl Marlantes' novel Matterhorn — Lieutenant Mellas nearly loses it. He busts out laughing, and "he (keeps) laughing, shaking his head in wonder at the world." And there it is, as the Marines were fond of saying — what an absurd thing war is. What an absurd concept to fight and die to take a hill, only to abandon it the next day. What an absurd notion of morality that it's murder to kill a drunken, inept commanding officer who sends troops to their useless deaths, but it's not murder to kill other people whose only crime is standing on the other side of a line.

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.

One of the hallmarks of this novel is how authentic it feels, and no where is that more evident than in how Marlantes, a decorated Vietnam veteran himself, renders these characters. Mellas, the protagonist, is the best example of this — he has come to Vietnam fresh from Princeton to win medals and build his résumé. Soon, though, he's assimilated, and actually becomes a soldier. It's funny to watch how his language changes over the course of the novel — by the midpoint, he's picked up all the slang like "there it is" and he's using the "F" word in every sentence, just like the Marine lifers.

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!



  1. Wow this sounds amazing. To use your line above, I'm not normally a fan of war novels, but it sounds like I've got to read this. Great review.

  2. Wow, you're good at recommending. :) As for war novels... I have read some very overwhelmingly good ones about WWI and I might have to try Vietnam finally? So...

  3. I don't know why I've been so apprehensive about reading this book. Maybe it's the war-novel aspect that puts me off of it? Your review makes it sound like a great read, though, so I might have to add it to my "to-read" list.

  4. if I didn't want to read this badly enough already. What a relief that my dad bought it, so I'll be able to start on it as soon as I'm back in the States.

  5. Wow Greg, you sold me on this book.
    Thanks man.

  6. I own this, I got to read this, between your rec, Reading Ape, and Book Lady's Blog, I got to read this, it has to happen

  7. Great review, Greg. Did the book justice. I would say I am glad you liked it, but I really had no doubt.

    His memoir of Vietnam, WHAT IT IS LIKE TO GO TO WAR comes out in October. Pretty stoked for it.

  8. I just bought this book and was so excited to read your thoughts. I'm excited to get started on it - although these days, I'm not sure when that will be. I linked this post in my "Friday Five" at Kate's Library. Have a great rest of the weekend!

  9. I agree that this was an excellent book, even though the leech situation freaked me out quite a bit. I can't imagine what it's like for guys to read about that, lol. Thanks to the commenter above for the heads up about his memoir. I'll be getting my hands on that one.

  10. @Brenna - It's definitely worth the time - but given your opinion of another certain much-hyped novel, you may want to proceed with caution on this one. ;)

    @superheidi - Other than snippets of The Things They Carried, this is really the first Vietnam War novel I've read - it's alarming, to say the least. What good WWI novels have you read? I have Shaara's To The Last Man on my shelf and, of course, All Quiet On The Western Front - both sadly unread.

    @Katie - I'm not gonna lie, the "war novel" parts of this war novel really do make it very war novely. But, there's so much else going on too that appeals to non-war novel fans. It really does have universal appeal - part of that is because Mellas is such a great character.

    @Ellen - Sorry to rub it in - I know you're excited about reading it.

    @Man - My pleasure - hope you enjoy it!

  11. @booksaremyBFs - Yeah, it was the Ape (and Rachel at Home Between Pages) that sold me, too - those two are usually spot on.

    @Ape - Thanks - and yeah, thanks to that calendar you created, I'm also excited about WHAT IT'S LIKE TO GO TO WAR. The man can write.

    @Kate - Thanks for the linkage - much appreciated! Hope you enjoy it, too, whenever it is you get a round to it!

    @Shelley - I'm not going to lie, I had to put down the book for several minutes and take a breather. I can't even imagine the pain. And I'm with you on the memoir - that's exciting!

  12. I wish that I had picked this one up at BEA. I got a copy of Marlantes' memoir, but now I'm really curious to read them together and compare a bit.

  13. Ah, one should read "All Quiet on the Western Front". It is not the very best, but it is a very good book in many ways. But once read, I will beg anyone to read the sequel "The Road Back". It's about the "lucky" ones that did survive this horrid war and came back to a country that had lost the war. This book makes so much sense.

    What I like about the vast amount of books on WWI is one can get a peek from all sides (nationalities) and perspectives (class, profession). So many wrote about their experiences. Remarque tells of the front and the return back home. Here are some others I really enjoyed:

    "Johnny Got his Gun" by Dalton Trumbo.
    "The Backwash of War" by Ellen Newbold LaMotte.
    "Regeneration Triology" by Pat Barker. nurse.
    "The Whistler's Room" by Paul Alverdes (tiny but grand)

  14. Thanks for the great review and your opinion...sounds like a great book.


    Stopping by from Cym Lowell's Book Review Party.

    Stop by my blog if you like.


  15. I had totally forgotten that I wanted to read this book. Thanks for the wonderful review and reminder!!