15 April 2010


The Vietnam War, or the American War as the North Vietnamese would have it, officially ended the morning of April 30, 1975, as a final helicopter lifted out the last ten marines from the American Embassy in Saigon.

In the novel “Matterhorn” historical time and historical dates don’t matter much to author Karl Marlantes. What matters is the jungle, the fog, the enemy. Bullets, bombs, staying safe or getting killed.

“Matterhorn” is a fantasy – these events didn’t happen, but similar ones certainly did. Some General decided to name high jungle peaks after Swiss Alps. This story revolves around a hillock designated Matterhorn, in the mountainous jungles, a very long way from here.

The sense of danger and dread is unrelenting. Marlantes provides very few moments for the reader to stop and wonder. The book is a nonstop tale written in mud and blood by an author who lived through it. I read this book late into the night four or five days in a row.

One reader commented online, “When they ask, fifty years from now, what was the Vietnam War like? Someone will hand them ‘Matterhorn.’ There it is.”

The way I’ve heard this novel described to those who haven’t yet read it is simple – you will feel you are in the jungle, with the Marines, from the very first page.

The book stands out crisply from other war books for that reason alone. It doesn’t get all gung-ho war movie or sadly sentimental or all Norman Mailer and the Great American Novel on you. There is a satisfying minimum of foxhole philosophy, no halfway authentic battles.

“Goodwin sauntered up to the CP group. He was eating a can of spaghetti and meatballs mixed with a package of Wyler’s lemonade powder. ‘What’s up, Jack?’ he asked Fitch.

“‘We’re going to take the hill at first light.’


“‘No. Helicopter hill.’

Goodwin whistled. ‘Just like in the movies,’ he said.

“‘Let’s hope so, Fitch replied, spreading his map.”

And this: “Something ahead snapped, and Mellas’ heartbeat accelerated as the shadow of Vancouver sank quickly to the mud. Mellas went down on one knee, eyes straining. The wind moved softly through the jungle, bringing the smell of damp rot. It also rustled the trees, filling the air with a steady hiss. Trying to hear anything was maddening. The failure to hear could mean his death. The fear made his heart pound and his breathing shallow and more rapid, all in turn making it more difficult to hear. No one moved. Everyone was waiting for an order...”

According to the jacket flap, it took Karl Marlantes thirty-five years to write this novel. I would guess that no matter when he started it, he could not have let it go until many years after the war.

Too bad, because I found myself wishing I could have read this book back in the day, when some were fighting in the jungle and others back home, like myself, were fighting against the war. And struggling to keep ourselves out of it, to be honest.

I was one of many college students who by and large did not end up on a plane to Vietnam. We swapped stories about swallowing blood to simulate bleeding ulcers. We attended college, graduate school, whatever it took to stay out of the wartime draft.

Some patriotic suckers actually enlisted. Others went because they were poor, or black, or poor and black. All of us – fighters and protestors alike – knew little about the war. We thought we understood the politics, but we didn’t. We thought we knew the war, but we didn’t know about the mistakes that killed people, or the luck that saved them during the war and long after.

Back then we would not have wanted to read a book like this, but I wish we had it in our hands in those days.

You are not likely to come across a better told tale of this now almost mythical war, nor one more universal in its suffering and redemption. We are fortunate that Karl Marlantes survived the Marines, medals and all, and lived to write about it. This is a harrowing, important book.


“Matterhorn” by Karl Marlantes. Atlantic Monthly Press hard cover $24.95. ISBN 9780802119285.

The publisher Grove Atlantic has an interview with the author, and links to reviews.

The Lemuria Books blog reprints an essay by Karl Marlantes.  He starts with this: “Having read a galley of my novel, Matterhorn, about Marines in Vietnam, a somewhat embarrassed woman came up to me and said, “I didn’t even know you guys slept outside.” She was college educated and had been an active protester against the war. I felt that my novel had built a small bridge.”

Karl Marlantes was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals. You can read the Navy Cross presentation here.

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