Book Review: 'Matterhorn' By Karl Marlantes — A Stark, Brutal Vietnam War Epic Karl Marlantes' debut novel, 30 years in the making, follows Waino Mellas, a young Ivy League student sent to Vietnam to lead a platoon. Reviewer Michael Schaub says that Marlantes comes closer than anyone before to capturing the "unrelenting terror and enormity" of the Vietnam War.


Book Reviews

'Matterhorn': A Beautiful, Brutal Vietnam War Epic

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
By Karl Marlantes
Hardcover, 592 pages
Atlantic Monthly
List price: $24.95

Read An Excerpt

Thirty-five years have passed since the fall of Saigon, but the Vietnam War has never really loosened its grip on the American imagination. Even people born years after the war have the painful images burned into their minds — Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the little girl running down the street after being burned in a napalm attack; South Vietnamese police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a handcuffed Viet Cong soldier in full sight of a television camera. There's no such thing as a kind or gentle war, but the sheer brutality and hopelessness of Vietnam set the tone for American conversations about war and foreign policy for decades after.

We've all seen, at some point, the Vietnam War dramatized on television or acted out in film. But it's impossible, of course, for anyone who wasn't there to fully gauge the horror and violence that American and Vietnamese soldiers encountered every minute of every day. In his debut novel, Matterhorn, Vietnam combat veteran Karl Marlantes attempts to transport his readers to 1969, in a jungle near Laos, just south of the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone — DMZ — where a company of young U.S. Marines are fighting for their lives in a war none of them really understands. And while no one who didn't serve in Vietnam can really grasp what life in that time, that place, was like, Marlantes comes closer than any American writer ever has to capturing the unrelenting terror and enormity of one of the saddest chapters in recent world history.

The protagonist of Matterhorn is 2nd Lt. Waino Mellas, a Marine reservist and Ivy League student called to lead a platoon in Bravo Company. Mellas has ambitions of being a lawyer, maybe a politician, and starts his tour frightened, but still hopeful. After a few weeks in country, he starts to realize he's unprepared, still a kid, leading a platoon of even younger kids — scared, confused, most desperate to go home. His education hasn't prepared him for a series of no-win situations — in the midst of one patrol, Mellas realizes "no strategy was perfect. All choices were bad in some way."

Matterhorn is Marlantes' first book. The author served as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was awarded two Purple Hearts and several other commendations. Courtesy of the author hide caption

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Courtesy of the author

He and his fellow soldiers are ordered to build a base on a desolate hill, ordered to abandon it, ordered to take it back from the North Vietnamese. The Marines begin to harbor serious doubts about their commanders, and one another — as racial strife threatens to tear apart the entire battalion, Mellas quickly discovers there's no good solution to anything, and all he can try to do is survive. In one heart-wrenching passage, Mellas considers running away, abandoning his friends, but decides against it: "Dying this way was a better way to die because living this way was a better way to live."

There's never been a Vietnam War novel as stark, powerful and brutal as Matterhorn — Marlantes manages to exceed the efforts of his closest literary antecedents, Tim O'Brien (The Things They Carried) and James Webb (the brilliant, underrated Fields of Fire). He manages to write with a dark and chilling beauty, even as he chronicles some of the most unspeakable events his readers are likely to encounter. It's the rare kind of masterpiece that enriches not just American literature but American history as well. Marlantes earned a host of medals in Vietnam; the service he's done with this brave novel should earn him, again, the thanks of a nation still broken, still trying to heal from the wounds of Vietnam.

Excerpt: 'Matterhorn'

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
By Karl Marlantes
Hardcover, 592 pages
Atlantic Monthly Press
List price: $24.95

LANGUAGE ADVISORY: This excerpt contains language that some might find offensive.

Mellas stood beneath the gray monsoon clouds on the narrow strip of cleared ground between the edge of the jungle and the relative safety of the perimeter wire. He tried to focus on counting the other thirteen Marines of the patrol as they emerged single file from the jungle, but exhaustion made focusing difficult. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to shut out the smell of the shit, which sloshed in the water that half-filled the open latrine pits above him on the other side of the wire. Rain dropped from the lip of his helmet, fell past his eyes, and spattered onto the satiny olive cloth that held the armor plating of his cumbersome new flak jacket. The dark green T-shirt and boxer shorts that his mother had dyed for him just three weeks ago clung to his skin, heavy and clammy beneath his camouflage utility jacket and trousers. He knew there would be leeches clinging to his legs, arms, back, and chest beneath his wet clothes, even though he couldn't feel them now. It was the way with leeches, he mused. They were so small and thin before they started sucking your blood that you rarely felt them unless they fell on you from a tree, and you never felt them piercing your skin. There was some sort of natural anesthetic in their saliva. You would discover them later, swollen with blood, sticking out from your skin like little pregnant bellies.

When the last Marine entered the maze of switchbacks and crude gates in the barbed wire, Mellas nodded to Fisher, the squad leader, one of three who reported to him. "Eleven plus us three," he said. Fisher nodded back, put his thumb up in agreement, and entered the wire. Mellas followed him, trailed by his radio operator, Hamilton. The patrol emerged from the wire, and the young Marines climbed slowly up the slope of the new fire support base, FSB Matterhorn, bent over with fatigue, picking their way around shattered stumps and dead trees that gave no shelter. The verdant underbrush had been hacked down with K-bar knives to clear fields of fire for the defensive lines, and the jungle floor, once veined with rivulets of water, was now only sucking clay.

The thin, wet straps of Mellas's two cotton ammunition bandoleers dug into the back of his neck, each with the weight of twenty fully loaded M-16 magazines. These straps had rubbed him raw. All he wanted to do now was get back to his hooch and take them off, along with his soaking boots and socks. He also wanted to go unconscious. That, however, wasn't possible. He knew he would finally have to deal with the nagging problem that Bass, his platoon sergeant, had laid on him that morning and that he had avoided by using the excuse of leaving on patrol. A black kid -- he couldn't remember the name; a machine gunner in Third Squad -- was upset with the company gunnery sergeant, whose name he couldn't remember either. There were forty new names and faces in Mellas's platoon alone, and almost 200 in the company, and black or white they all looked the same. It overwhelmed him. From the skipper right on down, they all wore the same filthy tattered camouflage, with no rank insignia, no way of distinguishing them. All of them were too thin, too young, and too exhausted. They all talked the same, too, saying fuck, or some adjective, noun, or adverb with fuck in it, every four words. Most of the intervening three words of their conversations dealt with unhappiness about food, mail, time in the bush, and girls they had left behind in high school. Mellas swore he'd succumb to none of it.

This black kid wanted out of the bush to have his recurrent headaches examined, and some of the brothers were stirring things up in support. The gunnery sergeant thought the kid was malingering and should have his butt kicked. Then another black kid refused to have his hair cut and people were up in arms about that. Mellas was supposed to be fighting a war. No one at the Basic School had said he'd be dealing with junior Malcolm X's and redneck Georgia crackers. Why couldn't the Navy corpsmen just decide shit like whether headaches were real or not? They were supposed to be the medical experts. Did the platoon commanders on Iwo Jima have to deal with crap like this?

As Mellas plodded slowly up the hill, with Fisher next to him and Hamilton automatically following with the radio, he became embarrassed by the sound his boots made as they pulled free of the mud, fearing that it would draw attention to the fact that they were still shiny and black. He quickly covered for this by complaining to Fisher about the squad's machine gunner, Hippy, making too much noise when Fisher had asked for the machine gun to come to the head of the small column because the point man thought he'd heard movement. Just speaking about the recent near-encounter with an enemy Mellas had not yet seen started his insides humming again, the vibration of fear that was like a strong electric potential with no place to discharge. Part of him was relieved that it had been a near miss but another part acted peeved that the noise might have cost them an opportunity for action, and this peevishness in turn irked Fisher.

When they reached the squad's usual position in the company lines, Mellas could see that Fisher could barely contain his own annoyance by the way he nearly threw to the ground the three staves he'd cut for himself and a couple of friends while out on the patrol. These staves were raw material for short-timer's sticks, elaborately carved walking sticks, roughly an inch and a half in diameter and three to five feet long. Some were simple calendars, others works of folk art. Each stick was marked in a way that showed how many days its owner had survived on his thirteen-month tour of duty and how many days were left to go. Mellas had also been anxious about the sound Fisher had made cutting the three staves with a machete, but he had said nothing. He was still in a delicate position: nominally in charge of the patrol, because he was the platoon commander, but until he was successfully broken in he was also under the orders of Lieutenant Fitch, the company commander, to do everything Fisher said. Mellas had accepted the noise for two reasons, both political. Fitch had basically said Fisher was in charge, so why buck Fitch? Fitch was the guy who could promote Mellas to executive officer, second in command, when Second Lieutenant Hawke rotated out of the bush. That would put him in line for company commander -- unless Hawke wanted it. A second reason was that Mellas hadn't been sure if the noise was dangerous, and he was far more worried about asking stupid questions than finding out. Too many stupid comments and dumb questions at this stage could make it more difficult to gain the respect of the platoon, and it was a lot harder to get ahead if the snuffs didn't like you or thought you were incompetent. The fact that Hawke, his predecessor, had been nearly worshipped by the platoon did not help matters.

Mellas and Hamilton left Fisher at Second Squad's line of holes and slowly climbed up a slope so steep that when Mellas slipped backward in the mud he barely had to bend his knee to stop himself. Hamilton, bowed nearly double with the weight of the radio, kept poking its antenna into the slope in front of him. The fog that swirled around them obscured their goal: a sagging makeshift shelter they had made by snapping their rubberized canvas ponchos together and hanging the ponchos over a scrap of communication wire strung only four feet above the ground between two blasted bushes. This hooch, along with two others that stood just a few feet away from it, formed what was called, not without irony, the platoon command post.

Mellas wanted to crawl inside his hooch and make the world disappear, but he knew this would be stupid and any rest would be short. It would be dark in a couple of hours, and the platoon had to set out trip flares in case any soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army -- the NVA -- approached. After that, the platoon had to rig the claymore mines, which were placed in front of their fighting holes and were detonated by pulling on a cord; they delivered 700 steel balls in a fan-shaped pattern at groin height. In addition, the uncompleted sections of the barbed wire had to be booby-trapped. If Mellas wanted to heat his C-rations he had to do so while it was still daylight, otherwise the flame would make a perfect aiming point. Then he had to inspect the forty Marines of his platoon for immersion foot and make sure everyone took the daily dose of dapsone for jungle rot and the weekly dose of chloroquine for malaria.

Excerpted from Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes. Copyright 2010 by Karl Marlantes. Excerpted by permission of Atlantic Monthly Press. All rights reserved.