by Karl Marlantes

I think there are two great Vietnam novels out this spring – one is Karl Marlantes’s stunning and visceral first novel, Matterhorn.  (I’ll write about the second in a later post.)

Matterhorn was a book that took me ages to read, because after every few pages I had to put it down in order to try to recover my emotional equilibrium.  I’ve read many of what are generally regarded as the best books—both fiction and nonfiction —about various wars, including Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer by Nathaniel Fick, Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War, Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato, and many more; but Matterhorn just knocked the wind out of me and made me wonder how any combat soldiers come home sane.  Even just the experience of reading it makes clear how difficult it must have been for Marlantes to write this book (it was over three decades in the making). One can only hope that it was in some sense cathartic, a way to deal with the memories, the flashbacks, and the whole messy, dangerous, frustrating, and frightening experience. 

Here’s a quote that I think reflects Marlantes’s ability to bring an event to life.  He’s describing a squadron of men making their way through the jungles, alert to any sight or sound of the North Vietnamese Army:

The fourteen-man snake moved in spasms. The point man would suddenly crouch, eyes and ears straining, and those behind him would bunch up, crouch, and wait to move again.  They would get tired, let down their guard.  Then, frightened by a strange sound, they would become alert once again. Their eyes flickered rapidly back and forth as they tried to look in all directions at once. They carried Kool-Aid packages, Tang—anything to kill the chemical taste of the water in their plastic canteens.  Soon the smears of purple and orange Kool-Aid on their lips combined with the fear in their eyes to make them look like children returning from a birthday party at which the hostess had shown horror films.

I think it’s amazing that Marlantes packs so much in this more-or-less throwaway paragraph, which is rendered so carefully that we feel part of that “snake” and know what those men look, feel, and act like. 

It’s an amazing accomplishment.



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6 responses to “Matterhorn

  1. Marlantes’s book Matterhorn in my view is very good and it kept me at it until the end. I felt as I read that the author surely had lived much of what he wrote, and for that I admire him greatly. I would have liked less about “mystery tours,” (alcohol binges), less use of the popular swear word f___, and more about fragging, those not infrequent acts of aggression against fellow soldiers.

  2. Mary Bondeson

    Hello Nancy,

    This book was absolutely harrowing, to say the least. My husband spent a 16 mo tour in Vietnam and never talked about it even tho’ it was over 40 years ago. Now I know why! He wasn’t in the infantry. The book was captivating. It was also interesting to read that it took the author over 30 years to write and also find a publisher.

    • Nancy Pearl

      Yes, emotionally harrowing is a good way of putting it. I think that Karl’s book really captures what it was like to be there, and his story mirrors that of a lot of other vets.

  3. I know what you mean about having to recover your emotional equilibrium. I have my students read a series of emails and letters from soldiers in Iraq, and it’s painful. My own work is interwar, but still I think we all have an obligation to try to understand just the tinieth part of what warfare is like. We’ll never understand it all.

  4. I bought this to give to my husband for his birthday — just the tip I needed in the nick of time!

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