Monday, August 2, 2010
Matterhorn (Karl Marlantes) (9.0/10.0)
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.