Karl Marlantis, “Matterhorn”

Medevac as metaphor.

Get me out of here.

You are going nowhere, taking and re-taking the same hill.

How must a soldier feel?  What’s it really like?

From page 429:

“No way, Lieutenant.”  Jackson folded his arms. “You think someone’s going to understand how you feel about being in the bush? I mean even if they’re like you in every way, you really think they’re going to understand what it’s like our here? Really understand?”

“Probably not.”

“Well, it’s like that being black. Unless you’ve been there, ain’t no way.”

Probably not. But Karl Marlantis sure gives it his best shot.  The exchange above is one brief moment in “Matterhorn,” a 566-page marathon, but even after reading Marlantis’ intense tale of Vietnam, I still wonder if there is any way to “get” what it’s like to be in the thick of war.

Team this novel up with Sebastian Junger’s “War” (about Afghanistan) and I think you’d be getting close. But if you’re reading a book, you’re probably not slogging through a jungle, watching your friends die, watching your friends fall apart, dealing with immersion foot, dealing with tigers, mental illness and sheer, utter dread.  (And dealing with racism too–there’s a hefty layer of racial issues that infuse many scenes as the tensions from back home manifest themselves deep in the jungle.)

“Matterhorn” is a book you sink into.  I listened on audio CD (to a gripping narration by Bronson Pinchot, who did a terrific, subtle job with a variety of voices) and each time I got in the car I was knee-deep in muck or waiting for a medevac or hoping against hope they wouldn’t send the troops back up that stupid hill, Matterhorn.  The novel reduces the war in Vietnam to a fight for one hill, to the jaded, cold eyes of Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas and the many, many men who surround him.  If you think you’ve read all the Vietnam novels—“Going After Cacciato,” “Tree of Smoke,” “The Things They Carried,” “Girl by the Road at Night” and others—“Matterhorn” is still worth reading.  There’s such an intense mix of melancholy and dread that pulls you down, tugs you under into the weight of the moment.

Like the Vietnam war of attrition itself, “Matterhorn” wears you down.  Late in the book, Mellas is shipped off to a hospital ship and after 500 pages you realize it’s the first bit of open air and true sunlight.  You practically feel yourself breathe on Mellas’ behalf.

But, of course, he’s going back, where he has to succumb to the “horror and the insanity” of war.

You have to hand it to Marlantis for pulling together this deep, rich and thoughtful story—told in such a straightforward, matter-of-fact way.  You can’t summarize a book like this in a few short paragraphs but here are few brush strokes:

Everybody hurts.

There’s no point in calculating the odds when everything is at stake.

The planners are always ahead of the fighters.

Hypocrisy has always been part of the profession of war.

A good helicopter pilot is better than god.

War is one, big foggy blackness.


One response to “Karl Marlantis, “Matterhorn”

  1. I agree with much of what you wrote. I wasn’t impressed by the layers of racism you mention – they seemed artificial. I also started to wonder whether the author was mixing himself up with Mellas which was an unappealing thought.

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