Matterhorn should come with a warning: "Do not read before bed." Not only did it keep me up reading into the wee hours of the night, but I couldn't stop thinking about the characters and situations they found themselves in long after I'd turned off the light. Marlantes's first novel is stunning in its intensity and scope. I've read many war novels over the years, but none that come close to this book's ability to convey the lives of soldiers with such realism.
The narrative follows Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas, newly arrived at Fire Support Base (FSB) Matterhorn in the northwest corner of South Vietnam. As we meet Mellas, he is a callow young man who joined the Marines right out of high school, entering an officer candidate program that allowed him to attend college while training, joining the Marine Corps proper after graduation. He's therefore a bit older than the 16 - 20 year old "grunts" around him, but far less wise in the ways of war. That changes over the course of the book, as Mellas matures and encounters situations for which he's unprepared and to which he must rapidly adapt. Mellas's experiences and growth form the core of the novel.
"'Semper Fi, brothers,' Mellas whispered to himself, understanding for the first time what the word 'always' required if you meant what you said. He remembered a discussion at his eating club with his friends and their dates one night after a dance. They were talking about the stupidity of warriors and their silly codes of honor. He'd joined in, laughing with the rest of them, hiding the fact that he'd joined the Marines several years before, not wanting to be thought of as whatever bad thing they thought a warrior was. Protected by their class and sex, they would never have to know otherwise. Now, seeing the Marines run across the landing zone, Mellas knew he could never join that cynical laughter again. Something had changed. People he loved were going to die to give meaning and life to what he'd always thought of as meaningless words in a dead language."
One of the elements that will widen this book's appeal is that there's no overt anti-war or anti-government message here. Marlantes just relates war as it is, both its moments of glory and its hours of tedium, the camaraderie and the conflict, the good and the bad.
The only sections of the book that falter a bit are those that concern the racial issues within the Marine Corps. The tensions don't seem to be adequately justified or examined within the novel. I found myself wishing the author had either explored the topic more fully or left it out entirely, as this was the only part of the story I felt didn't give me greater understanding of the problems these soldiers faced. In addition, so much of the narrative takes place within Mellas's purview that any shift away from it seems out of place, and I found the change in focus from Mellas to the contingent of black soldiers somewhat incongruous.
Certainly this book won't be for everyone. It is graphically violent, profane, and characters readers will grow to love are killed. It is also filled with military jargon which some may find distracting (although a glossary included at the back of the book is a welcome addition).
At one point in the novel a black soldier explains to Mellas that, being white, he simply can never understand what it's like to be black, in the same way that Mellas will never be able to make others fully understand what it was like to be at war in the jungles of Vietnam. While most people who read this book will never fight in a war, Marlantes allows his readers to come as close as possible to the experience. He does what only great authors can: truly put his audience in his characters' shoes. Readers will undoubtedly come away from Matterhorn with a new, better understanding of what it's like to be in battle under horrendous circumstances. This book is a must-read for anyone with an interest in war novels.
A video interview with Karl Marlantes about the 30-year process of writing Matterhorn
Karl Marlantes' top 10 war stories - books that tell the 'numbing, confusing, occasionally thrilling' truth about combat.
This review was originally published in April 2010, and has been updated for the May 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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