books, Friday Recommends

Friday Recommends: Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes

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When I (Ben) read Cold Mountain many years ago, I read it over the course of a summer at camp. It was the perfect place, and pace, to read it. I read it in my bunk at night under cover of rain, on the floor of a school bus on a rafting trip to Ohiopyle, and under the stars by campfire. It’s a book meant to be read slowly — not just to savor the writing and give it the careful attention it deserves, but also because the story itself is a long, winding one. Reading it over three months, I began to feel the physical ache Inman and Ada felt at being separated from one another for so long.

Matterhorn deserves to be read at a similar pace. (It took me two months.) It is a Vietnam war novel, and yet none of it feels tired or reheated. This is familiar terrain, so to speak, but seen from a distinctive vantage point. Marlantes, a decorated Vietnam Marine vet himself, spent the past thirty years writing it, and as Sebastian Junger put it in the New York Times, “you get the feeling he was not desperate or impatient to be published. Rather, he seems like a man whose life was radically altered by war, and who now wants to pass along the favor.” Junger adds later, in a perfect distillation of the novel: “It’s not a book so much as a deployment, and you will not return unaltered.”

Like The Thin Red Line, Matterhorn has a rich cast of characters who all rise and fall in and out of the narrative, each leaving an impressionistic stamp on the action. But Matterhorn’s central character is a Second Lieutenant Platoon Commander named Mellas, an ambitious, shrewd Marine with an eye to the political and a head for numbers. He is painfully green when the novel begins, struggling to remember the names of fellow Marines. By the end he is a commanding presence, though all his hard-won wisdom and authority has come at a devastating price.

Matterhorn is a damning Vietnam novel, and yet Marlantes’ great accomplishment is that none of it feels political. Mellas and Bravo company begin the novel building an outpost atop a mountain called Matterhorn just south of the DMZ. They are ordered to abandon it, leading to a pointless slog through the jungle in which Marines are eaten by tigers and die of cerebral malaria. An alcoholic Lieutenant Colonel named Simpson then commands Bravo to retake Matterhorn, where the enemy has since occupied Bravo’s own outpost. Marlantes cuts between the senseless brutality of war and the cool disconnect of command headquarters, where one man’s insecurities cost the lives of countless boys and men. Simpson could be a buffoonish villain in the wrong hands, but Marlantes makes him a sad, all-too-real figure of bureaucratic necessity. Matterhorn is a damning indictment of military incompetence.

Yet it also honors the individual efforts of sacrifice, initiative, brotherhood, love and cowardice that play out on the front lines. Their military objectives are unclear (besides killing “gooks”), but the Marines in Bravo each struggle to reconcile honor with the senselessness of war. In one typical moment during the charge to retake Matterhorn, Marlantes writes of one Marine, “Part of him was crying out about how stupid it was to risk his life going to retrieve a couple of dead chucks, but another part of him was making sure the machine gun worked perfectly.”

Marlantes also peels back the racial dynamics of Vietnam, where differences between black and white Marines could quickly escalate into potentially lethal self-destruction. There are attempted fraggings (in a glossary Marlantes writes that there were forty-three fragging incidents in Vietnam, though not all were fatal) and poisonous distrust. Characters frequently talk about the racial turmoil back home, where Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy have both been assassinated within the past year. The enemy inside the ranks is as pervasive — and sometimes even more so — than the enemy outside them.

Marlantes can be exceedingly technical with military jargon and platoon maneuvers, and while this gives Matterhorn a rich authenticity, it’s also at times confusing. That may be part of the point. While there is the glossary provided, Marlantes leaves it up to the reader to discern what’s going on. He gives a few helpful (and slightly distracting) asides early in the novel, but soon enough expects you to pick it up.

This is in keeping with Junger’s idea of the novel as deployment, not escapism. It is a book to be endured. (You won’t see many people reading it at the beach this summer.) Its cost is exacting, and you will have a hard time shaking it.

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Here is video of Marlantes discussing the thirty years it took him to write the novel.

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