Monday, August 2, 2010

Matterhorn (Karl Marlantes) (9.0/10.0)

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam WarNow, I’m not a big war-as-literature fan. I don’t spend hours watching the History Channel, and I still have trouble believing that there’s a market for a Military History Channel, though there clearly is or it wouldn’t exist. It’s true that I read Winston Churchill’s six-volume set, The Second World War (and I reviewed it here). And I read his abridged treatment of World War I, entitled The World Crisis, as well. But I read those books more because I find Churchill’s war-prose hypnotizing than anything else. And the action in Churchill’s accounts is largely on Downing Street, in the White House, or at the Kremlin, and not so much on the field of battle itself. And, of course, I enjoyed both The Sun Also Rises and For Whom the Bell Tolls, but come on who didn’t? Anyhow, the point is that I’m not a big war-as-literature guy.

And yet here I am making another exception. Matterhorn, the 2010 debut novel of Karl Marlantes, is quite simply the best novel (war-based or otherwise) that I have read in several years. And I’m not the only one—The New York Times called it, “a raw, brilliant account of war that may well serve as a final exorcism for one of the most painful passages in American history.” I think the reason for its attraction is two-fold: (1) it is an intensely realistic portrayal of the conflict (you seriously feel at times that you are face down in the mud of the Vietnamese jungle with Marine Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas), and (2) it is, at bottom, a story of male relationships, both friendly and troubled, in the face of almost unfathomable hardship. The word on the street is that Karl Marlantes spent 30 years (that’s not a typo) on the book and the main characters (including the jungle, which is a character of its own) reflect a craftsman’s work.

The main plot revolves around the taking and retaking of Matterhorn, a hill that stands like a sentinel over a North Vietnamese approach from Laos. And there is plenty of super-realistic action as the hill is won, abandoned, and won again through the tremendously-sacrificial exploits of Bravo Company, Fifth Marine Division. But the subplots revolve around politics: the politics of advancement among officers and the politics of race relations among the grunts, which grows every bit as violent as the conflict in which it is set. And underlying all is a growing discontent with the war itself, the failure to identify a unifying goal, its lack of direction, and the tremendous cost in human lives.

Matterhorn may not be everybody’s cup of tea, but I’m willing to bet that even most opponents of the war-as-literature set (like me) will find it a deeply enjoyable read.


  1. Great review - I'm not a war-novel guy either, so I was with you right from the beginning. But, given your review - the Ape's too - I think I'm going to have to read this.

  2. I've heard so many great things about this book! I'm not a big reader of war novels, but it sounds like this may be worth it!

    Great review!

  3. Terrific review. This one has been on my TBR list for a while and now I want to read it even more.


  4. Greg, I was going to link to the Ape's review, which was excellent as always. I was turned on to Matterhorn by a friend, but his recommendation really sealed the deal.

    Kate, thanks for the compliment. In my opinion, all that you've read is true.

    Janna, thanks. That list never seems to grow any smaller does it? But I guess that's a good thing!

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful and well written review of Matterhorn! We'd love for you to come join our Matterhorn community to check out other reviews as well as a calendar of events for Karl's author tour and appearances. We've posted a link to this article on our wall so that our community can check you out as well.

  6. Whoops, forgot to add a link.

  7. Thanks, Kyle. It really was a fantastic book. I've signed on to the community. And I appreciate the posting of the link--you're all very welcome here!