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2010 Catapult Notable List – #3

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.

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3 comments on “2010 Catapult Notable List – #3

  1. Rachel
    January 10, 2011

    Found you through Greg at The New Dork Book Review, and I have to say, I couldn't agree more. I also loved Matterhorn and I also called it the best Vietnam book to date. It's definitely in my top 5 for 2010 (even though I never actually blogged an offical list :-\)

  2. Shelley
    January 12, 2011

    I agree, this was an excellent book. One of the things I liked about it was the straightforward style of writing–the story, characters, and details were strong enough that any other style would have detracted from its strengths.
    I was also very interested in how each of the characters dealt with the futility of what they were being asked to do, and how they found something else to give them a sense of purpose.
    Great review!

  3. Seth Marko
    January 12, 2011

    Right on, thanks, you guys! It's interesting, I think a lot of people look at Matterhorn & think it's just a “guy book” – machismo & war and all that – but I know just as many women who've read & loved it as there are men. It's just too important and resonant to ignore.

    I wrote another piece on this a while back on my work blog, http://warwicksbooks.blogspot.com, where I enlisted other people I know to offer their opinions on Matterhorn. Buddhists & Vietnam vets agree! Check it. 🙂

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This entry was posted on January 4, 2011 by in Karl Marlantes, Matterhorn, notable books 2010.
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