By Karl Marlantes
- Date finished: Nov. 21, 2014
- Genre: Fiction
- Year: 2010
- Project: n/a
- Reading List: Fall 2014
- Grade: A+
- Thoughts upon reading:
Being an active Internet-er, I read my share of book blogs every now and then, while also following a few key individuals whom I respect for their opinion, taste, and sense of humor. It was one of these individuals that first introduced me to Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes a few years ago, and this I remember: at the time, this particular book blogger would talk about authors to whom, if they were on a stage, she would throw her panties. You know, because they’re rock stars. That year, Karl Marlantes was going to be at one of the big book conferences giving a talk, and she mused (maybe half seriously) about how she would need to get camo panties to throw at him because this book was that good.
At the time, I’m thinking, “Well, that’s a strange way to go about saying you liked a book.” And the truth it, I don’t really like war books. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I’m not “a guy” (ugh, I know, how cliche). I don’t identify with them. It’s the same with war movies; the machine gun noise gives me a headache. Now, I have read your “classic” war books and liked them – namely, the Hemingway books, For Whom the Bells Toll, etc. But those were literary war books. They were classics. Plus, Matterhorn is about the Vietnam War, a historical event I’ve always been fuzzy on when it came to the details. In fact, when I think about the Vietnam War, I don’t think about actual classic films like Apocalypse Now (which I do want to see…anything based off of The Heart of Darkness is a winner). No, I think about Forest Gump, which, I know, is entirely inappropriate.
But then. Then, I found myself powering through 500+ pages of Matterhorn in little over a week because oh my God guys, this book was that good.
Matterhorn is a sprawling, multi-layered story about the Bravo Company, a company of Marines who, at the beginning of the book, are tasked with digging out defensive bunkers on a God-forsaken mountain somewhere deep in the Vietnamese hill country, a mountain they’ve nicknamed Matterhorn. In particular, the book focuses on the new second lieutenant and platoon commander, Waino Mellas, a smart and ambitious young man who’s fresh out of the States and eager to turn a stint with the Marines into a political career. He’s not a bad guy, but during the next few months, he is forced to question his sense of self, discover the often muddled meaning of friendship and duty, and come to terms with the giant clusterf*ck that is modern warfare.
You see, I’ve already said that I don’t know much about the Vietnam War (at least historically or politically). I have read a few books about what it was like to fight in that war, namely those by the phenomenal Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried, etc.), but Matterhorn, I think, completely captured what it was like to truly be there. Don’t get me wrong, The Things They Carried is a great book (read it!). But Matterhorn is a book that is going to stay with me for a long time. Matterhorn is full of description of everyday war – the stink of the holes the Marines dig to shit in, the terrifying, crippling fear of being point, the dread of storming a hill, the icy mud that cakes everything you’re wearing. I could feel what it was like to be with the Bravo company while reading this book, which linked me to them in unexpected ways. I kept wanting to read, read, read because I found, about halfway through, that I really cared about these guys, and I wanted to know what happened to them next. And the way it ended … oh man. I thought I was immune to the thought of these guys dying – it is war, after all, and a lot of them do die. But that ending was a real heart breaker, and it completely took the wind out of me.
And finally, I was impressed with the sub-story on race in Matterhorn. This is a topic that I don’t remember reading much about in other Vietnam War books. Race, and the divide between the white and black soldiers, is a real thing in Bravo Company, and I was impressed with the way Marlantes handled it. There are radicals, and there is a lot of anger and prejudice on both sides. The war is, after all, the first time that many of these young men have been thrown together with others from a different race.. But white and black still have to come together to die in the jungle, and there are several efforts for the two sides to come together in mutual understanding and unexpected friendships.
Marlantes was a Marine in the Vietnam War, so you can trust that he knows his stuff. This book also took him 30 years to write, so you can feel the passion and tears that went into the crafting of this story. It really is a phenomenal book – probably one of the best war books I’ve ever read, and one of the best books I’ve read this year.