DIY MFA Reading List: “Matterhorn” by Karl Marlantes

Karl Marlantes sprawling new novel Matterhorn was thirty years in the making. A veteran of the Vietnam War, Marlantes spent three decades recovering from his experiences there and drafting this book, holding down a day job as a business consultant as he wrote.

The book begins atop a bald, muddy hill in Vietnam given the code name Matterhorn by the Marines who occupy the place. The primary protagonist is Second Lieutenant Wayne Mellas, commander of Bravo Company’s First Platoon (Bravo One). Marines were deployed for thirteen months in Vietnam, and Mellas – his first week on the job – is already counting the days until he can “wake up” one morning and catch a flight stateside. As a platoon commander, Mellas is initially viewed with suspicion by his fellow soldiers, who can’t yet know whether he’ll turn out to be a politically-minded “lifer” intent on moving up the ranks quickly … or a trusted soldier who will protect his fellow marines in the thick of battle.

As it turns out, Mellas is both. He’s originally portrayed as a scared kid angling for a leadership role so he can spend less time in the bush. Mellas seems more concerned with scoring political points with Bravo Company’s superior officers than leading his men … who are just as scared, we later realize, as he is. But as the novel progresses, and Mellas begins to realize that the idiotic and often self-serving decisions of his superior officers will mean life or death to him and his men, he gradually transforms into a real leader. It’s an impressive transformation to behold.

Marlantes is at his best when describing the damp and mundane details of military life. The surrounding jungle is crawling with threats: bloodsucking leeches, predatory North Vietnamese Army soldiers, man-eating tigers, ubiquitous jungle rot, life-threatening immersion foot, mosquitoes, poisonous snakes … the list goes on and on. In the first chapter alone, Bravo Company’s corpsman performs field surgery on a grunt’s penis to remove a leech lodged in his urethra. If he doesn’t succeed the man will die from kidney failure, and the experience is so traumatizing for all involved that the surgeon breaks down in tears after the operation.

The dialogue is peppered with the often raunchy shorthand spoken in the Marine Corps (I encourage you to browse the glossary of military slang prior to starting the first chapter). Whites are “chucks”, blacks are “splibs”, soldiers killed in action are “Coors”, out of fuel is “bingo fuel”, and soldiers boil their coffee with clean-burning C-4 to avoid the noxious fumes given off by the typical C-ration heaters. Marlantes is writing from experience, and the gritty realism attests to his time in the bush.

After Bravo Company fortifies Matterhorn with an interlocking maze of nearly indestructible bunkers, they are ordered to abandon the hill to establish a landing and artillery zone atop another hill to their northeast. In the interim, they are led on a death march by their Company commanders. Several soldiers die, and the entire Company comes close to dying of thirst or hunger. They’re eventually rescued and ferried back to the relative safety of Vandegrift Combat Base, where … almost to a man … they recuperate and drink themselves into a weeklong stupor. Some of the best scenes in the novel are between Mellas and his fellow soldiers as they relax and unwind, safe from the constant threat of danger lurking for them out in the bush. There are real tensions between the black and white members of Bravo Company, and Mellas begins to act as a kind of mediator between the different factions within the Company, earning the respect of many.

But after Bravo Company abandons Matterhorn, the NVA move in. Soon Mellas is being asked to lead his men on a mission to take back the hill. He knows this means certain death for many of the kids he’ll be leading, and the final two hundred pages of the novel seem to rush by in an adrenaline-fueled blur of tactical maneuvers and explosions.

There is no doubt that Karl Marlantes knows war, and the pressure that it exerts upon the soldiers caught up in the bureaucratic insanity of it all. He’s given us a glimpse into the way that men bond under the threat of combat, and shows us how, when the danger abates, even briefly, soldiers manage to find other things to fight about: race, religion, rank, politics, morality … but mostly race. I learned more about war in general, and the Vietnam War in particular, from Matterhorn than from any textbook or movie.

All of that being said, the actual writing can sometimes underwhelm. The style veers from overly simplistic, to overly explanatory, to over-written purple prose where Marlantes seems to be trying too hard. Interspersed between all of this are sentences and scenes of real beauty and power. If the author had spent more effort bringing the jungle and Vietnam War to life with well-crafted metaphor, or left more to the reader’s imagination (rather than over-explaining almost every situation), this novel could have been a classic.

As it stands, it’s just a really entertaining and exciting read.

This review is one in a series for what I’m calling the The DIY MFA in Creative Writing.

Click here for the comprehensive listing of titles, and check back often for updates on other selections from the list.