Category Vietnam

Matterhorn 0


by Karl Marlantes

I think there are two great Vietnam novels out this spring – one is Karl Marlantes’s stunning and visceral first novel, Matterhorn.  (I’ll write about the second in a later post.)

Matterhorn was a book that took me ages to read, because after every few pages I had to put it down in order to try to recover my emotional equilibrium.  I’ve read many of what are generally regarded as the best books—both fiction and nonfiction —about various wars, including Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest, One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer by Nathaniel Fick, Dexter Filkins’s The Forever War, Love My Rifle More Than You by Kayla Williams, Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Going After Cacciato, and many more; but Matterhorn just knocked the wind out of me and made me wonder how any combat soldiers come home sane.  Even just the experience of reading it makes clear how difficult it must have been for Marlantes to write this book (it was over three decades in the making). One can only hope that it was in some sense cathartic, a way to deal with the memories, the flashbacks, and the whole messy, dangerous, frustrating, and frightening experience. 

Here’s a quote that I think reflects Marlantes’s ability to bring an event to life.  He’s describing a squadron of men making their way through the jungles, alert to any sight or sound of the North Vietnamese Army:

The fourteen-man snake moved in spasms. The point man would suddenly crouch, eyes and ears straining, and those behind him would bunch up, crouch, and wait to move again.  They would get tired, let down their guard.  Then, frightened by a strange sound, they would become alert once again. Their eyes flickered rapidly back and forth as they tried to look in all directions at once. They carried Kool-Aid packages, Tang—anything to kill the chemical taste of the water in their plastic canteens.  Soon the smears of purple and orange Kool-Aid on their lips combined with the fear in their eyes to make them look like children returning from a birthday party at which the hostess had shown horror films.

I think it’s amazing that Marlantes packs so much in this more-or-less throwaway paragraph, which is rendered so carefully that we feel part of that “snake” and know what those men look, feel, and act like. 

It’s an amazing accomplishment.