Review: 'Matterhorn' By Karl Marlantes
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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
Now, a novel about the Vietnam War that was 30 years in the making. It's called "Matterhorn," and it's the first book by Karl Marlantes, a decorated Marine and a veteran of Vietnam.
Alan Cheuse has this review.
ALAN CHEUSE: "Matterhorn" is a hilltop in south Vietnam near the DMZ. It's also a world, a world of combat and a threshing ground for the lives and souls of Marine Corps Company Bravo in the midst of the Vietnam War. Much to the chagrin of the boys and men in Bravo, a dithering alcoholic battalion commander named Simpson, maneuvering for his own glory, orders them to take Matterhorn then abandon it, then take it again.
The novel itself never dithers, despite a slow, if not stately, opening couple of dozen pages. The author eventually delivers, I promise you, more combat than you may be ready for, most of it seen through the eyes of a fresh, new second lieutenant named Mellas.
Mellas is newly arrived in country, 21 years old, a virgin with a good mind for map reading and math. His transformation over the course of nearly 600 pages, from novice to veteran, forms the core of the novel. The story of the corps of teenaged Marines, black troops and white, college boys and country boys going head to head against the skilled teenaged soldiers of the north Vietnamese army will take your heart and sometimes even your breath away.
Leeches suck their blood, tigers kill and eat them, the fog descends upon them, sometimes blinds them. Their wounds ooze, their feet begin to rot, their rations go. They're reduced to licking their ponchos for moisture.
Few war novels give you life and death in the field this vividly, with all of its furor and spraying blood and feces, its hunger and near madness. The troops of Bravo company suffer the jungle of war, the enemy machine guns, grenades and mortars, and somehow the novelist transfigures them into heroes with a sometime insight that comes in the face of death, even as he convinces the reader of the stupidity, ignorance, dishonor, fetal sacrifice and blindness of our war in Vietnam.
We've been looking for the great Vietnam War novel for 40 years and more. This isn't it but it will do for our time.
SIEGEL: The novel is "Matterhorn" by Karl Marlantes.
Review Alan Cheuse teaches writing at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.
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