Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
I know it’s dangerous territory to call any one book “the best” of a genre, but perhaps with the exception of the novels of Tim O’Brien, Matterhorn has got to be the best novel of Vietnam that has been written to date. (A mouthful, I know.) It took decorated veteran Karl Marlantes 35 years to get the story inside him down onto paper – how many more firsthand novels of that era can there be on the horizon? This is something I keep going back to, almost as a defense of the novel as the best of its genre: who can top this? Who was in that war and is still working on a more realistic novel than this one?
It is such a powerful story that I feel I am almost doing him a disservice by putting his book as low as #3 on this list – as if something so trifling would phase someone who has experienced what he has. Sometimes I am such an idiot.
Matterhorn is a novel that highlights the utter futility, stupidity, and frustration that permeates modern warfare. It’s the story of a company of Marines, entrenched in the jungle of Vietnam, forced to protect, defend, abandon, attack, and hold a supposedly strategically significant mountain that rises above the treeline just south of the DMZ. While there are a few bright spots, it is a ensemble cast of characters – every man in Bravo Company has a name and a story worth listening to. Each is as integral to the telling of this tale as the next – much as it would be in reality. These men fight, kill, and often die, at the whim of an alcoholic, glory-seeking Battalion Commander who watches and criticizes from afar. It is raw, yet elegant – powerful, yet humble; a remarkable book that forces a fresh perspective on a sad chapter in American history.
I’ve struggled a bit with what I wanted to say about Matterhorn in this post – unlike other books on this Notable list, there wasn’t one particular passage that resonated with me and Marlantes’ writing isn’t as elegant & polished as some others. (He’s infinitely better at exposition than James Patterson, I can guarantee you that.) I was born in 1975 – a month and a half after Saigon fell – so for me, there’s always been a bit of a mystique surrounding Vietnam. It is a war that has left its indelible stamp on my generation – even though we were just barely getting started as it came to a close. I didn’t want to paint a picture of Matterhorn as a total downer of a novel, all blood and suffering and pain and war, even though I haven’t read anything that has brought the stark reality of that war to the forefront quite like this one. The bottom line is that it is a very realistic novel about what it is like to be a soldier on the front lines of a war – and everything that that entails. You sort of have to take it or leave it, you know? At Number 3 on our countdown, I say take it.