Friday, December 31, 2010

MATTERHORN by Karl Marlantes - Reviewed by Gary Carden

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
New York: Atlantic Monthly Press
$24.95 - 600 pages

“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, December 20, 2010

In many ways, this is one of the most terrifying novels that I have ever read. This is largely due to 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/death.There is no turning around, and although you (the reader) may object to being forced at gun point down a one-way path, it is pointless to resist. No one is listening. As the sound of exploding mortars increase, you find yourself experiencing a flood of unpleasant tactile sensations - jungle rot that covers the skin with puss-filled sores, leeches that drop from the trees down your shirt and immediately become bloated from sucking your blood; infected feet, physical exhaustion and chills produced by hunger and dehydration. The soldiers around you begin to shout sensing that an unavoidable confrontation is at hand ... and you have a loaded M-16.

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. Over one hundred vivid characters, each unique ...but all flawed by humanity. There seems to be a terrible injustice in the fact that just as the reader begin 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 Lieutenant 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,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 heliocopter “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 Hemingway and Joseph Campbell have noted that humanity often “transcends” its inherent flaws when it is confronted with death. Second Lieutenant 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.

Matterhorn’s extensive use of jargon, military slang and technical terms would render much of the action and dialogue meaningless if the author had not provided an extensive “Glossary.” It is here that you learn that COORS, means “Killed in action,” FRAGGING is an attempt to kill a fellow officer with a grenade; KIT CARSONS are North Vietnamese deserters who work as “scouts” for the American forces; and a MYSTERY TOUR is a prolonged drunken party. The reader will also learn that most of the “grunts” carry packages of Wylers lemon, grape Koolade, Choo-Choo Cherry and Tabasco sauce to enrich the taste of K-rations and chemically-tainted water. Also, most of Bravo’s officers carry elaborately-carved walking sticks as a means of calculating how many days, weeks or months remain in their tour of duty.

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.

In a recent email, this reviewer received a poem written by Edward Micus a Vietnam vet who sums up his experience with chilling honesty:

"We liked to shoot things. We shot birds and parrots and gulls
and things we didn't know the names for. We shot monkeys and gibbons
and deer and pigs and turtles. We shot flying things and crawling
things and swimming and walking things. We shot oxen and water buffalo
in the open paddies and bet how many M-16 rounds it would take to buckle
one to its knees because it was big and stupid. We shot tigers and
elephants. We rarely shot the enemy. We shot Montagnards. We shot
Vietnamese women and children and a goodly number of old men. And if any
of that were not enough, we shot each other. Then we went home and shot

All of this happened over 40 years ago, and many of Matterhorn’s reviewers are quick to note that our modern troops are far removed from most of the horrors chronicled by Marlantes. Soldiers in Iran or Afghanistan are better equipped and fed, they say, and that a modern grunt’s life cannot be manipulated by career-minded officers.I am a bit skeptical about that. Most readers are fully aware that extending from the walls of Troy to Agincourt, Gettysburg and Dunkirk there are cemeteries and battlefield sites that bear mute witness to the fact that soldiers have been dying for a long time - often, in the judgment of history ... without purpose or meaning.


  1. Gary
    That poem has a knockout ending that turns the cynicism it starts with on its head. Not sure I could stand to read this book. It sounds gruesome.

  2. Jim,

    Edward Micus, who wrote that poem, was a friend
    of my younger brother's in Viet Nam. As Jimmy,
    my brother, said to me in an email: "He (Micus)
    was shot in the stomach in the Que Son Valley
    around December 1967. I and three other guys
    loaded him on a chopper and I still remember,
    as the chopper lifted off, him giving me thumbs
    up." Micus survived to become a poet. Google
    his name and you can see him reading on YouTube.
    I think his poetry is quite powerful. Jimmy
    says "his writing pretty much hit the nail on
    the head." In reference to this particular

  3. Well, James,I would agree that the book is gruesome. There were times when I wasn't sure I wanted to turn the page. However, it was also, as one of the blurbs on the cover states, "riveting."
    If I had a criticism of the novel, it would be that it is "unrelenting" and that is probably not really a flaw.