In the tradition of Norman Mailer's "The Naked and the Dead" and James Jones's "The Thin Red Line," Marlantes tells the powerful and compelling 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.
It’s 1969 and Waino Mellas has an Ivy League education and is looking forward to a legal career when he finds himself in Viet Nam leading the First Platoon of Bravo Company. In that opening chapter we learn of one of the insidious dangers of fighting in the jungles of Viet Nam: leeches. By the end of that first chapter I felt fully ingrained in the war and as if I was along for the ride of a lifetime. Marlantes is so adept at describing the lives of these Marines, the jungle where the battles take place, the unknown dangers lurking in the locale, and the desperate measures needed to stay alive that I found it impossible to put the book down.
Among the themes covered: Agent Orange (“It’s a defoliant…It won’t hurt you. It’s just to kill plants…It’s so the trees won’t give any shelter to the enemy. The Air Force has used it a lot, and it won’t bother humans.” Page 135); the role of the British (“How could the English, seemingly the most civilized of people, the people with whom they’d fought side by side against the Nazis, be aiding their enemy, the North Vietnamese Army?” Page 177); the stark differences between the lives of the young marines in battle and those of the brass calling the shots, far removed from the action, trying to advance their careers; the extreme danger from the jungle’s natural predators; the many and varied ways of dying in battle that have little to do with the enemy including immersion foot disease, starvation, dehydration, the extreme danger from the jungle’s natural predators, and friendly fire; the important role that racism played in the everyday lives of the Marines; and above all, the fact that these brave soldiers, for the most part, were just kids, the platoon leaders barely into their twenties and the grunts just teenagers. Kids fighting an old man’s war.
In the epigraph, Marlantes quotes “Parzival: “Shame and honor clash where the courage of a steadfast man is motley like the magpie. But such a man may yet make merry, for Heaven and Hell have equal part in him.”
Throughout the book, the author makes clear the “Parzival” theme of good and evil that eventually leads to this narrative piece:
“It occurred to Mellas that he could create the possibility of good or evil through caring. He could nullify the indifferent world. But in so doing he opened himself up to the pain of watching it get blown away. His killing that day would not have been evil if the dead soldiers hadn’t been loved by mothers, sisters, friends, wives. Mellas understood that in destroying the fabric that linked those people, he had participated in evil, but this evil had hurt him as well. He also understood that his participation in evil, was a result of being human. Being human was the best he could do. Without man there would be no evil. But there was also no good, nothing moral built over the world of fact. Humans were responsible for it all. He laughed at the cosmic joke, but he felt heartsick.” (Page 500)
Profound, gut-wrenching, devastating, visceral and thrilling, this is the book about that awful time in our country’s history that we’ve waited thirty years for. It was well worth the wait. Very highly recommended.
My Review: Marlantes was a Marine in Vietnam. He took thirty years...longer than most of this planet's people have been alive...to bring forth this horrifying, harrowing, agonizing artwork. I expect we will not see another book from him, or if we do, it will be so radically different from this one as to be unrecognizable as created in the same brain.
The pain and the horror are obviously not going to let him go. He's exorcised them as best a man can in writing this book. But I don't feel a sense of relief at the end of this book. I don't finish up when he stops writing. I think that's because the experience of reading this book is so shattering. OBVIOUSLY! OBVIOUSLY!! it's no smallest patch on actually living this book, but it's a rare experience to read something so complete, so clearly delineated in its scope and its prupose, and that has power...ask a demolitions person about the power of an explosion contained in a box...but more than that, it has purpose. I don't know Marlantes. I don't know that I want to. I know enough about him after reading this book to hate the idea of sending kids across oceans to kill other human beings before I think they're even ready to *love* other human beings, because so many of them won't live to become the man he has.
I hate that fact so much that I hurt inside. I want to scream and cry and rage and mourn and weep with the mothers and fathers whose souls are now scarred and deformed by the pain of losing a child. It won't help, they're launched on a horrible personal journey, but GODDAM IT they're people whose lives changed forever because of some stupid slogan like "national interest."
Ahem. The book.
So, what has Marlantes wrought? A long, hard journey of a book that millions will read some of, and back away scared...be one of the few who go the distance, and you will never, ever forget the journey or the guide. Worth it.
The gate agent announced that the plane was boarding and Darryl stood up, handsome as ever in his Marine uniform, second lieutenant bars on his collar. One by one we walked up and gave him a big hug, until finally it was Kathy's turn. They embraced for a long time, kissed, and then Darryl turned and disappeared down the walkway to the plane. We didn't leave immediately, but stood at the big windows overlooking the runway as the plane taxied and finally took off.
The whole group of us turned away and started walking down the wide passageway back toward our cars. I looked over at Kathy. She was crying softly as he mother tried to comfort her.
"Why's she crying?" I asked my mother, instinctively lowering my voice to a whisper.
"Because Darryl's leaving," she answered.
"But he's only going to California."
"Yes," Mama said, "but in a few days he will leave California and go to Vietnam," tears now welling in her own eyes.
A year later, Darryl returned. We were all very excited and thankfully he came home in one piece. But he was different. He refused to talk about his time in the war and, in fact, always quoted his age as a year younger than he actually was, saying that the year in Vietnam didn't count. Now that I have read Matterhorn, I understand why.
Matterhorn is the story of a young Marine, Lieutenant Mellas, newly landed in Vietnam. Mellas is a recent Ivy League graduate who joined the Marine reserve to help pay for his college education and is now serving his out his commitment. The story begins as Mellas and Bravo company to which he has been assigned are sitting atop Matterhorn, a large hill in northwest Vietnam that they have fortified. They are soon ordered to abandon the hill and after a series of other maneuvers asked to retake it once the North Vietnamese have moved in.
Since I was only 14 when the war ended, I've never really known much about it. Only that Darryl fought in it and that it was so unpopular that public protests essentially bought it to the end. I've heard that it was a war with no real objective, that it was a war of attrition, that it was a war run by politicians more than generals, but I don't think I ever really understood what that meant until I read this book.
I usually think of a war as being two different sides in conflict, in this case China and the North Vietnamese vs the USA and the South Vietnamese, but that conflict was was just one of many conflicts in this book. There was lifers vs reserves, white vs black, black vs black, enlisted vs officers, good leaders vs poor leaders, nature vs man, Marines vs Air Force. Yet with all these conflicts playing out among, in and around Bravo company, when it all hits the fan, every Marine sucks it up, swallows his fear and fights for the guy next to him.
Matterhorn is going to be one of those books I remember and think about for a long time. It will definitely go on my list of all-time favorites. One reason may be that I listened to the audio version of this book, and the narrator, Bronson Pinchot, was amazing. The voices that he brought to the different characters enriched the story immensely. He deserves all the praise he is getting for this one!
One suggestion--there are a lot of characters in the book and at the very beginning of the print version is a chart that shows the reporting relationship between all of them. If you can have a copy of this chart nearby when you are listening, it can come in very handy as you sort out who's who. I wish Audible made graphics like this available with audiobooks.
Regardless, highly recommended!
Marlantes shows that the people on the ground are not perfect, not by a long stretch. Having been a Marine in Vietnam, he should know. Nor does he paint those in charge behind the lines as some kind of monsters, either. The book contains very little moralising of any kind, in fact. It is left to the reader to decide who is to blame; who is in the right, who is in the wrong. By leaving this mostly up to the reader, Marlantes shows up the ambiguity of moral judgement. Can you pass judgement on someone without having been in their shoes? Unfortunately, we as humans sometimes have to, despite our lack of perfect knowledge. Still, Marlantes shows the danger of this. Situations make us do things. Stress, pain, fear, love, hate – these emotions give the lie to man as a rational being. And sometimes, even at our most rational, we are left with insoluble dilemmas. Each human being has to decide for him- or herself how they will comport themselves, and then he or she has to live with the consequences. The main character, Waino Mellas, exemplifies this personal responsibility. He has to make choices – heart-wrenching ones, sometimes – and accept that they are sometimes the wrong choices. There it is.
The novel’s style fits it subject. Marlantes writes plainly and, for such a long book, surprisingly succinctly. I usually prefer a few more bells and whistles in my reading matter, but this seemed appropriate to such an honest, unblinkered book. The writing is economical and fast-paced, but not stilted or clichéd. I was worried after seeing a James Patterson blurb in the front cover, but Marlantes is a much better writer than that might imply. Although the book is plot-driven, Marlantes does not let character or motivation fall by the wayside. He also does not shy away from occasional philosophical speculations between his characters. Some people may find this tedious; I found it enriching. The novel is relentlessly grim and quite graphic, but never gratuitously so. You do not want to enter a warzone after reading this book; the horror is just too vivid. You may, however, feel an urge to do something meaningful with your life. That is, to me, a sign of life-affirming literature.
I found Marlantes’s treatment of racial tension between the troops interesting. Obviously, it is very pertinent to the society I live in, here in South Africa. Marlantes has cogent things to say about racism and bigotry in general, such as that we can never really understand another person’s racial experience; we can only try to empathise with each other, cautiously gaging one another’s feelings. I am too young and geographically-removed to bring much understanding to the situation in America during the 60’s, but it does seem to me that we in South Africa are dealing with very similar problems. Not quite the same, of course: understanding the differences between similar situations is part of the, if not solution to the problem, then at least its amelioration. Marlantes’s sympathetic portrayal of black and white characters deserves special commendation. He has done a wonderful job of highlighting not only the differences between his characters, but also the similarities.
I have not read Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, but am aware that Matterhorn is based, to a degree, on this work, and I may look into it later. I think, however, that the book stands well on its own feet. This is a powerful novel, which sounds somewhat clichéd, but it is true. Even if I never experience combat, I feel that I have, in however small a way, gained insight into the crucible of war.
The life expectancy of newly minted second lieutenants dropped into the heat of the Viet Nam War was not a long one. Marine Lieutenant Waino Mellas, a young officer with dreams of wartime glory he could later parlay into a nice stateside career, was one of those men. "Matterhorn," written in the third person, focuses on what happens to Mellas during his first two months in the country. It can be seen as a coming of age story of sorts, an experience shared by the thousands of young men ("kids," as Marlantes refers to them) who were forced to scramble for their lives in the jungles of Vietnam.
Lieutenant Mellas finds that all of his training has done little to prepare him for what he experiences leading a small group of men deep into the bush in search of hidden weapons and enemy soldiers. The old adage that "experience is the best teacher" makes perfect sense to him; he only hopes that he will live long enough to gain that experience. In two months, by the end of "Matterhorn," Mellas will be much wiser about the ways of war and the nature of those who fight it - and, just as importantly, he will be wiser about the nature of those who call the shots from the safety of their desks.
Most of the novel's action takes place on, or around, a strategically well-located hill the marines have dubbed Matterhorn. Initially, the men work themselves to the point of exhaustion digging bunkers, patrolling the surrounding jungle, and otherwise transforming the hill into a suitable base for American artillery. To the company's dismay, changes in strategy soon result in the whole area being abandoned to the North Vietnam regulars who are happy to claim the fortified hill for their own purposes. Predictably, for a war in which victories are claimed by winning the "body count," the company is ordered to retake the hill because battalion commanders see the large number of enemy soldiers atop the hill as a prize not to be ignored.
"Matterhorn" is not easy reading for those who lived through this period in American history. It is a stark reminder of how difficult this political war was on the soldiers having to fight it. These young men had to fight more than the enemy. They endured torrential monsoons, snakes, leeches, malnourishment, jungle rot and exposure to chemicals like the now infamous Agent Orange. They prayed for heavy fogs to lift long enough for helicopters to evacuate the wounded and to resupply the rest of them with food, water and ammunition. And tragically, they faced a black power movement within the ranks that sometimes ended in murder by hand grenade.
Karl Marlantes vividly brings this 40-year-old war back to life, a war filled with lessons about how not to fight our next one. My only quarrel with the novel is the pace of its ending. What happens in the book's final three pages happens at such an abrupt quickening of pace that its impact is lessoned, and some readers will find themselves questioning whether a company commander would react to the book's climax the way Lieutenant Mellas reacts. Personally, I found the lieutenant's reaction to be not so much out of character as unrealistic.
Rated at: 4.5
Thrust into jungle warfare with it’s associated horrors of leeches, diarrhoea, jungle rot and immersion foot these young marines appear to be little more than “cannon fodder” to the senior offices sitting many miles away in the safety of home base. They appear to view this war much like a balance sheet, wanting to justify their damages with greater amounts of “gooks” killed. Body count was everything and used as justification for men lost.
Ordered to abandon Matterhorn, only to be dropped back into the jungle a few days later and told to retake it, Bravo Company endures, trying to survive in spite of these futile and confused orders. Battling against a regiment of North Vietnamese Regulars they quickly find themselves in trouble, surrounded and being bombarded by shells and continuously micromanaged from headquarters with demands from incompetent officers. Surrounded, unable to retreat, they must dig in and hope the weather changes to allow the helicopters back in with reinforcements, food, ammunition, medical supplies and water.
This war comes to life as seen through the eyes of a young, ambitious officer, who soon learns to think more about survival than medals or promotion. Yet, there is so much more to this book than combat. Karl Marlantes absolutely nails the times and political feelings at all levels. This book is a vivid look at Viet Nam, and the men who fought there, in the late sixties, and with his realistic dialogue and characters, one that will remain unforgettable.
Thematically, it is similar to Parsifal in examining the maturation of a young Marine lieutenant under combat conditions. It is an anti-war statement in that it exposes the futility of combat, the dysfunction of military command structure, and the heroism of soldier-pawns chosen to sacrifice for the good of the 'cause.' Character development is outstanding, and situation descriptions are as real as it gets. It is a real page turner, and the best war and anti-war novel I've read.
Matterhorn refers to a (fictional) hill in Vietnam which the the Marines, and our main character 2nd Lt. Mellas, of Bravo Company occupy. Mellas is a young, idealistic, well-educated man, who is out of his depth and struggling to survive and learn to lead in the middle of a war. Throughout the novel, we see Mellas transform from idealistic to cynical, inexperienced to veteran. This transformation is difficult and comes at a price of seeing friends and those under his command perish. The main villain of the novel is the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Simpson. While not an overtly malicious character, he is more concerned with prestige and careerism and less with the welfare of his Marines. He represents the rear-area leader who is far removed from the realities of the real situations that the characters face. One of the themes explored in the novel is that of futility. The futility of fighting an enemy that will not be defeated, the futility of hacking your way through a dense jungle of bamboo and elephant grass, the futility of being ordered to assault a hill that you abandoned earlier, only to see many of your comrades die a gruesome death in the process. Overall, just the futility of war and killing.
The story doesn't depict grand armies clashing together but rather small units struggling through the jungles and up and down hills. A sort of everyday life of an infantryman viewpoint. One part I really enjoyed in the novel was when Lt. Mellas finally puts the pieces together and successfully leads an assault on a machine gun bunker. We see the character in him change from green and timid, to a efficient warrior. He man's up and takes charge so to speak. There are philosophical discussions and racial discussions spattered throughout the book at various points, but they complement the story and provide depth and understanding to what these men are going through.
Overall, I give Matterhorn 5 out of 5 stars. It's a very well-written historical fiction book of a small group of men in the middle of war. It doesn't bog down in politics, but rather shows how life was lived in the bush of Vietnam by the average Marine infantryman. It wasn't glamorous, but rather full of fear, boredom, fatigue, and a sense of fatalistic futility.
Race relations that are teetering on the edge are explored. The horrors of war are vivid and presented matter of factly. Tensions in the chain of command are rendered from several viewpoints. The fighting spirit and camaraderie, including the love of fighting, is not left out. Respect and admiration of the enemy along with hating them is brought out. The political maneuvers down to the battlefield level results in frustration and anger up and down the lines. Territory loses its importance and the war becomes a war of numbers. Killed, wounded, and probables. An area is taken, then, abandoned, then retaken again. It becomes maddening for all involved.
There is a lot of slang, jargon and technical terms but there is a glossary to guide through its use. Marlantes spent thirty years working on the book while pursuing a career. The effort paid off in a well written book that conveys the suffering, doggedness, emotions, despair, tragedies, and a time that is now firmly in the past in a near perfect rendition.
In the early parts of the book, I thought Marlantes had bitten off more than he could chew, because he continues to introduce more and more characters, both men and officers, dozens of names. I struggled to try to keep them all straight - who was in which platoon and which officer was in charge? And the plethora of details and description - of the mud and blood and pus and sores and leeches etc. - threatened to literally drown the book in a sea of misery. And this was mostly without ever making contact with the nearly invisible enemy, the NVA or Viet Cong. But I stuck with it, and it all began to gradually make sense - or, perhaps better, the NONsense that is war. About three hundred pages in, Bravo Company finally made bloody contact with that elusive enemy and everything heated up and the narrative literally began to race along. The misery intensified and the wounded and dead began to pile up. Many of the those characters I'd struggled to keep straight simply fell away as casualties, and the circumstances of each was often enough to make you cry. One scene in particular, after a bloody offensive over one more mountain top, really hit home, as Marlantes noted in terse terms how everybody loses in this kind of a battle or war.
"The day was spent in weary stupefaction, hauling dead American teenagers to a stack beside the landing zone and dead Vietnamese teenagers to the garbage pit down the side of the north face."
Scenes of young men, many of them former altar boys (and not so long ago either), reduced to savagery and despair are enough to break your heart and there are many such scenes here. Marlantes is a master storyteller. The stories here, unfortunately, are mostly horror stories, interspersed only rarely with moments of humor, but laced throughout with deeply felt feelings of brotherhood and humanity.
Matterhorn, while it is a uniquely special book, and one that obviously cried to be written, made up of feelings and memories that undoubtedly had haunted the author for over thirty years, brought to mind other stories of that awful war, some true, some fictional. I thought of The Thirteenth Valley by John DelVecchio, another fat novel of Vietnam, as well as one of the very first Vietnam War novels, William Pelfrey's The Big V. The latter novel is long out of print, but strongly deserves another look, as it bore strong similarities to another classic novel of war, The Red Badge of Courage. On the memoir side of the street, Robert Mason's Chickenhawk and Frederick Downs' The Killing Zone come to mind. The fact is there have been dozens, scores of books to come out of the Vietnam war in the past forty years. The fact that Karl Marlantes' new novel is getting so much attention as such a late entry is a testament to its power and eloquence. This is not just a book about the mess that was Vietnam. This is a book about the folly that is war. I will recommend Matterhorn highly.
Like Gone With the Wind, Matterhorn will probably be more of a popular culture achievement, not a literary one; it's already a New York Times Bestseller. It may win some awards, Marlantes really does deserve credit for bringing a deeper understanding about the war. In particular racial tensions make up a big portion of the story, most Vietnam books/movies skim over this, not so in Matterhorn where about half the characters are black, an accurate reflection of the make-up of the Marines at the time (and now). Matterhorn is an authentic representation of war that says something about America now and then, and it entertains.
This is book make compelling and thoughtful reading as we slog through both the stifling bush and the disconnected bureaucratic, and often contradictory, decisions of the war.
Here's a book that packs a greater cinematic wallop that the famous film, Platoon, by Oliver Stone. This books deserves to take its place among those masterpieces of fiction forge in the crucible of war.
That said, because of its subject matter, people will naturally try to draw comparisons to other Vietnam books. So to give you some context: it's got poingnant characters and a more literary style, like the The Things They Carried; the visceral descriptions of Dispatches (the book Apocalypse now was partially based on); and the "reality check" and technical details of We Were Soldiers Once...and Young. Yet at the same time, it's like none of these.
Some people have complained that it's long and chaotic and that you're bombarded with minute details, but I think that adds to the effect and makes it seem like you're standing next to Lt Mellas. You get the feeling that long, chaotic, and overwhelming was exactly Marlantes' experience.
I wasn't there, so I can't speak to the book's authenticity. However I can say that it definitely seems real. And it sticks with you long after you're done reading. A few months after I'd finished it, I had the following conversation:
-Random guy: I'm reading this book where the author does such a good job setting the scene that you feel like you're trudging with the main character through a monsoon. He covers the sights, smells, tastes, feelings, and misery -- all of it, and....
-Me: By any chance are you talking about Matterhorn?
-Random Guy: Yes, but....I didn't even say 'Vietnam' how'd you know?
This war deeply affected my life, as one who stayed home and waited, and this book brought too much of it back.
I listened to an Audible unabridged version, and the narrator was right for this book, even though some of the whispered conversation was hard to understand.
For a novel of the Vietnam war, this one is excellent. I didn't like it as much, though, as the author's nonfiction book What It is Like to Go to War.
Many times, reviewers decry the presence of stereotypes, however some works cannot avoid stereotypical protagonists for the very reason that stereotypes are developed for a reason; their near universal pervasiveness. For example, how can you tell the story of a Vietnam combat platoon without the hard edged, “lifer” gunny sergeant; or the radical Black Panther fomenting discontent among the Black troops; or the fresh meat, callow Lieutenant; or the clueless, mid-level officers more interested in body counts and meaningless objectives than the welfare of their troops?
This story contains all of those, but then again, so has every other novel that I’ve read in the genre. And, to be honest, much of the dialog came across as a little forced and, at times, silly. I’m certainly not going to argue that the story and the events are not believable or realistic. The author was there, and he’s amply supported by other veterans with first hand experience.
There were a few very interesting occurrences that lent some originality to the work, but by and large, it was the same lingo, the same internal and external stresses and fractures, and the same micro and macro backdrops. Bottom line, I found it no better or worse than several others I’ve already experienced. And as I’d experienced them previously, this effort seemed little more than a rehash of things I’d read and experienced before. Had it been the first, I might have been more impressed.
Yesterday, my monthly Vietnam Veteran Magazine arrived and I was surprised to find an article about Matterhorn and a short interview with Karl about his book. All along, I had been looking at the main character, Lt. Mellas and assumed he was the author's alter ego in the story. Karl pointed out during the interview that he was not Lt. Mellas, but another Lieutenant in the company.
He also mentioned that it took over thirty years to finally complete and publish Matterhorn. My own novel, Cherries - a Vietnam War novel, took just as long to complete with identical results. I remember the huge piles of retyped pages, depleted carbon paper and typewriter ribbons that were stored in the corner of my office - thank goodness for computers today!
Matterhorn is a wonderful story, I highly recommend it, and should be a must-read for every want-to-be soldier coming out of high school.
John Podlaski, author
Cherries - A Vietnam War Novel
I was never in the armed services much less in action during the Viet Nam War, so there's no way I can really understand what it was like. Reading this novel, however, is about as close as I could come to having a real sense of that experience. Whether at war or peace, humans act the way humans act, and the author Karl Marlantes' scenes ring true. Men act with love and hate, with wisdom and stupidity, and with courage and dishonor. Organizations are organizations, and decisions are based on perceptions at the top whether those perceptions are valid or not. But when decisions are wrong in the corporate world money is lost whereas when decisions are wrong in war lives are lost.
After I finished this 600 page book, I went aback and reread parts, the first time I've done that in years. I did so less so to replay the action but to zero in on various characters which Marlantes vividly creates in all their complexity and to decide with which of them I most identify. It many ways it was a black Marine from the rural Deep South. He was deep smart rather than fast smart, as another character described him, and fast smart was better in their situation. I sometimes have thought that I might not have done well in that war because I too see myself as deep rather than fast smart. Religion was important to the black Marine even though he struggled with his Christianity in the face of the suffering he saw and felt.
The Marines ponder the nature of good and evil, the arbitrariness of life and death while they also hunger for women who are, of course, totally absent. Some of these men die as virgins without ever having experienced the sexual love of a woman. And yes, some scenes are gory and unpleasant, but to me getting through them was worthwhile.
The author was a Marine combat veteran of the Viet Nam war who was highly decorated for valor. This is the only book he has written and he spent 30 years writing it. I'm glad he did.