A grisly war novel that stands apart
“It took Karl Marlantes 30 years to write his thunderous, brutally granular account of scorched-earth combat in Vietnam. Matterhorn was originally published by a tiny press in California before a prominent New York editor caught up to it, and now this 600-page beast of a novel is loose in the wider world, taut as a trip wire and reeking of gunpowder. It tells the story of a green second lieutenant named Mellas and his education in terror and suffering over the course of a few deadly weeks as he and his companions take, abandon and then try to retake a sheer mountain deep in the jungle. “
— Time magazine, Dec.20, 2010
In many ways, this is one of the most terrifying novels that I have ever read. This is largely because of the fact that Marlantes drops the reader onto a kind of treadmill that moves him (and Bravo Company) unrelentingly through a green hell of rain and fog towards oblivion and death. There is no turning around, and although the reader may object to being forced at gunpoint down a one-way path, it is pointless to resist. No one is listening.
In the final analysis, the “you are there” aspect of Matterhorn constitutes one of the reasons (and there are many) why this is a great novel. Certainly, there have been a good number of respectable, well-researched novels (Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, James Webb’s Fields of Fire, for example) on the Vietnam conflict, but Karl Marlantes’ 600-page opus (edited down from 1,600 pages) is destined to be what the New York Times calls “the final exorcism for one of the most painful passages in American history.” In addition to the compelling writing, Matterhorn has a panoramic, Wagnerian vastness that encompasses everything from “war room” strategy meetings of the commanding officers to the racial conflicts that frequently threaten to destroy Bravo Company from within.
However, Mariantes’ greatest gift is his talent for creating a large cast of characters who emerge like images in a photographer’s darkroom — images that begin as vague shapes that gradually acquire features and personality: the charismatic Jawhawk’s red mustache, Vancouver, the Canadian machine gunner, who carried a Japanese ceremonial sword; Corporal Jancowitz, who has fallen in love with a bar girl in Bangkok and re-enlisted to be near her; China, the Black Panther advocate; the timid Jacobs, who stutters; the small, ineffectual “Shortround” Pollini; and a marvelous dog named Pat, doomed to be killed when he has served his purpose in Vietnam.
More than 100 vivid characters, each unique ... but all flawed by humanity. There seems to be a terrible injustice in the fact that just as the reader begins to care about them, laughing at their quips and condemning their failings, they are suddenly gone, reduced to rotten, inert bundles wrapped in green shrouds and awaiting shipment home.
Much of Matterhorn’s three-week journey through sustained madness and horror is seen through the eyes of Second Lt. Waino Mallas, an ambitious Princeton graduate who initially perceives his Vietnam tour as a politically desirable experience in his anticipated career as a lawyer. At first, Mallas is viewed with suspicion and contempt by many of the members of Bravo company because of his ivy-league background. In addition, he quickly gains a reputation for being short-tempered and contentious.
However, in a matter of days, as he is subjected to starvation, inadequate supplies, bureaucratic stupidity and bloodshed, he begins to suspect that there is something profoundly wrong with this war. The conflict involves “people who didn’t know each other” but were destined “ to kill each other over a hill that none of them cared about.”
That hill, Matterhorn, is a bleak mountain in South Vietnam between Laos and the DMZ (de-militarized zone), which owes its name to the American command’s penchant for naming Vietnamese elevations after mountains in Switzerland. During the three weeks encompassed by this novel, Matterhorn is invaded by Bravo company, fortified, abandoned, occupied by the North Vietnamese and then retaken (at a tremendous cost) by Bravo.
Shrouded in a thick fog that renders air support ineffectual, the members of Mallas’ company spend much of their time staring at the impenetrable fog, straining to hear the sound of an approaching helicopter “like members of a cargo cult.” Unable to transport their dead and wounded, or to acquire food, water and ammunition, Bravo company spends much of its time in a kind of frozen limbo.
As Bravo company waits for food, water or the next attack, they attempt to communicate with each other. These intervals of exchange — whimsically “playing the dozens,” disputes over musical taste, debates on the nature of Good and Evil (“Are we murderers or patriots?”) and the current status of the Black Panther movement in the states — constitute the heart of Matterhorn. Ironically, these dialogues fall into two categories: those that analyze racism, God and “the human condition” with remarkable clarity, and those that spark confrontations that push Bravo company’s smoldering racism close to open rebellion.
This dichotomy suggests that war, despite its inhumanity, provides an insight into human nature that is not normally apparent. Sources as diverse as Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Campbell have noted that humanity often “transcends” its inherent flaws when it is confronted with death. Second Lt. Mallas not only witnesses acts of heroism but is astonished to find himself participating in them. These are acts that attest to the bond of brotherhood that seems to surface on the battlefield. This “bond,” for lack of a better term, is love, a profound caring that is evident when Mallas watches officers send enlisted men into battle “the way a mother prepares her children before they leave for school.”
However, once the danger is past, Bravo company reverts to a burgeoning frustration and rage that often fosters a desire to turn on the inept, career-motivated officers who send them on missions in which they die without purpose or meaning.
Like all war novels, Matterhorn will be compared to its predecessors. Admittedly, I thought of Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead when I encountered graphic descriptions of death and decay. I also found a bit of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 in many episodes when Mallas, like Yosarrian, encounters nightmarish events that contain a dark and grisly humor (such as a “death by Tiger” episode). However, such comparisons are superficial at best.
Finally, the novel, Matterhorn, like the bleak and enigmatic mountain it represents, stands alone.
Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2009. 600 pages.