Last week I finished “Matterhorn: a Novel of the Vietnam War” by Karl Marlantes. It was my final fiction title from this year’s Notable Books List.
I wasn’t looking forward to “Matterhorn.” This was party due to its length at just under 600 pages, and partly due to the setting of Marines’ combat during the Vietnam War.
I’d checked it out and taken it home once before, and found myself without the time to dig in. This time I gave it my best shot, and eventually I found myself connecting with it.
Lieutenant Waino Mellas arrives in Vietnam with no experience of commanding others, and with plenty of fear for what lies ahead. At first he seems mostly confusion and diffidence, unwilling to ask questions because he’s afraid to look stupid, and unsure of his likely courage under fire. Eventually, though, he becomes accustomed to the sights and sounds of war, and begins to see where his own talents can make a difference for the men with whom he eventually bonds.
I was struck over and over by the physical discomfort of the war–jungle rot, hunger and thirst, damp feet, leeches, and that short list doesn’t even touch the injuries and death that follow combat engagements.
The parallel story to that of the Marines in action is the politics behind the action–officers far behind the lines making decisions, politics that enter in to placement of troops, and the ability of the field officers to make their case. Another aspect to the politics is the politics of race, with overt hostilities between some white and black Marines.
Eventually, Marlantes led me to care about Mellas and his troops, and to find his situation compelling. Mellas clearly improves as an officer, does better in accepting responsibility, works the system effectively and finds himself no longer isolated from those around him.
The title is a code name referring to a mountain that becomes a base of operation.
Merlantes served in the Marines in Vietnam, and he took years to write this novel. I’ll recommend his book to people interested in the social history of war, especially Vietnam. I know that not everyone is willing to devote the time and difficult attention that this novel requires, but I will recommend it to those who recognize good fiction–sound pacing, strong character development, and literary construction of another place and time.
“Matterhorn” teams well with another Notable fiction, “The Lotus Eaters” by Tatjana Soli, which while also set in Vietnam during the war, takes a much different approach. Reading those two within the last month leads me to add the modern classic “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien to my reading list. Each year’s Notables List brings some of these lucky combinations of titles related by setting or theme, adding value to my reading of the List.