Review: Matterhorn

22 Dec

I swear, I’m not going to start this post with apologies for not posting in a while. You guys totally get by now that I’m busy, and that things sometimes get in the way of my blogging. It’s been said recently by several bloggers that if there’s only time for one, book bloggers will likely choose reading over blogging. And that’s completely what I’ve been doing. I’ve finished several books lately, including two books over 5oo pages.

I’m going to review the other one, The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, soon, but first, I wanted to write my review of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War before the visceral feeling I had reading it left me completely.

I’m not a “war book” fan typically. I don’t go seeking out books about war, even though the topic interests me. My father was in the Air Force, up until a month and a half ago, so I hear plenty of the military jargon and war stories galore at home. You would think that growing up around soldiers would make me seek out this particular genre, but I rarely do – especially in fiction. One of my favorite books this year was War by Sebastian Junger, a powerful narrative nonfiction book in which Junger follows soldiers in Afghanistan. And one of my favorite books of all time is All Quiet on the Western Front. But I don’t have a particular drive to seek out, say World War II novels or Civil War books, as a genre, like some people do. If anything “war novels” have to be especially good to catch my attention. The war part isn’t enough to make me pick it up; the story part and the character part have to be strong enough to carry a war story and make me care. Because war stories can all be the same – the settings, no matter what the war, are the same, and it’s easy to see the generalizations in all war stories and to be bored or numb to them. The story itself has to rise above what could potentially become a cliché. We’ve all read war novels, so the key to getting me to pay attention is for the plot and the characters to be special, to transcend the war. Here’s a synopsis from Powell’s:

Intense, powerful, and compelling, Matterhorn is an epic war novel in the tradition of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and James Jones’s The Thin Red Line. It is the timeless story of a young Marine lieutenant, Waino Mellas, and his comrades in Bravo Company, who are dropped into the mountain jungle of Vietnam as boys and forced to fight their way into manhood. Standing in their way are not merely the North Vietnamese but also monsoon rain and mud, leeches and tigers, disease and malnutrition. Almost as daunting, it turns out, are the obstacles they discover between each other: racial tension, competing ambitions, and duplicitous superior officers. But when the company finds itself surrounded and outnumbered by a massive enemy regiment, the Marines are thrust into the raw and all-consuming terror of combat. The experience will change them forever.Written by a highly decorated Marine veteran over the course of thirty years, Matterhorn is a spellbinding and unforgettable novel that brings to life an entire world — both its horrors and its thrills — and seems destined to become a classic of combat literature.

That’s a lot of build-up to tell you that Matterhorn completely did it for me. It was special;  every word, every character, every twitch of the book was special.

Karl Marlantes is a Vietnam vet, and I know that other Vietnam books in the past have been written by vets as well (Tim O’Brien comes to mind right away). But Marlantes has managed to capture an aspect of Vietnam that I haven’t seen in many – if any – Vietnam novels. I’m not sure exactly how to describe it, other than to say, it smacks of real truth in storytelling. War stories tend to focus on the big stuff: battles, firefights, etc.  Good war stories dig into the rest of war – the everyday boredom, the fear, the “humping” from one position to another, the guilt, and the ambition. Marlantes captures this element of war with such precision that I found myself not only caring about the characters, but feeling what they were feeling – fear, anxiety, anger, responsibility, boredom, love. And I did so without even realizing it. I became wrapped up in the story that the conclusion of the book caught me so by surprise I didn’t realize it was the end. There wasn’t a build-up to the finale. There wasn’t an obvious narrative arc to the story, because in real life, in real war, there is no narrative; it’s just everyday life. In other words, shit happens. So when I got to the end, I was stunned and frankly sad to be leaving this world (which feels strange to say about a war book, but I was fully committed to the story by that point).

It’s cliche to say, I laughed, I cried, etc., etc. But in this case it’s true. I laughed, and I cried multiple times, sometimes in public places. Like at the end of the book, when I cried both because of a plot point and because it was over, in the middle of the gym locker room, sitting on a bench. It was that powerful, and I was that sorry to finish the book.

Marlantes wrote this debut novel (hard to believe its his first) over the course of 30 years. I can imagine how cathartic writing this piece would be for him, but also how painful. But I sincerely hope it doesn’t take another 30 years to write his next book. His voice and style (and amazing ability to create “voice” for each of his characters) is something I’d like to read over and over again. And I have no doubt that he’s capable of writing non-Vietnam-based novels as well (just in case anyone suspects that he’s more than a one-trick pony).

I rarely say this, but GO BUY THIS BOOK. Consider it a Christmas present to yourself.


3 Responses to “Review: Matterhorn”

  1. C_Girl December 22, 2010 at 5:34 pm #

    Wow, I needed a recommendation this strong–I have been reading a series of disappointing books that shoulda coulda been good but were just WEREN’T. I don’t even think I can finish the one I’m currently embroiled in (Tomato Girl) and I didn’t finish the second-to-last one (And The We came to the End by Joshua Ferris, to which I had quite been looking forward.) Thanks!

  2. Biblibio December 23, 2010 at 10:56 am #

    I was interested in Matterhorn the moment I heard how long it had taken Marlantes to write it. Not because I think time spent necessarily means better quality, but because it takes a certain kind of man to finally say, “I’m ready. Let’s publish the thing.” That’s the kind of author I’d like to be reading.

    Your review strengthens this idea. I’ll make a point to read this in the relatively near future.


  1. A Memorial Day Book List « a home between pages - May 30, 2011

    […] A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes. I’ve reviewed this book on my blog, and I picked up a copy of Marlantes’ new nonfiction book, What […]

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