'Matterhorn': an epic journey through the fog and filth of war
Woodinville author Karl Marlantes' "Matterhorn" is an epic novel of young Marines mired in the quagmire of the Vietnam War. Marlantes reads at several area locations this month and next in the Seattle area.
Special to The Seattle Times
Karl MarlantesThe author of "Matterhorn" will discuss his book at these area locations:
• At 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at Barnes & Noble, University Village, Seattle (206-517-4107 or store-locator.barnesandnoble.com/store/2573).
• At 7 p.m. Saturday at Village Books in Bellingham (360-671-2626 or www.villagebooks.com).
• At 7 p.m. April 22 at the University Book Store's Seattle location (206-634-3400 or www.ubookstore.com).
• At 7 p.m. May 18 at the Elliott Bay Book Co.'s new location, 1521 16th Ave., Seattle (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
• At 7 p.m. May 19 at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park (206-366-3333 or www.thirdplacebooks.com).
'Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War'
by Karl Marlantes
Atlantic Monthly Press/El Leon Literary Arts, 597 pp., $24.95
In 2009, Karl Marlantes was on the verge of publishing a novel he'd worked on for 30 years when a stroke of luck stopped the presses.
Yes, that's right: For the Woodinville author, it was a lucky break when his small West Coast publisher, El Leon Literary Arts, put on the brakes after selling a modest number of copies. Barnes & Noble had selected the book as part of its Discover New Writers program, and El Leon needed some time to find a partner to handle the demand.
So, a year and some editing changes later, "Matterhorn," a definitive novel of the Vietnam War, has finally arrived.
"Matterhorn," which takes its title from the site of a fierce battle that comes at the climax of the book, is written from the same ground's-eye perspective on Vietnam already provided by movies like Oliver Stone's "Platoon" and Michael Herr's book of front-line reporting, "Dispatches."
But it doesn't simply duplicate them. With unrivaled precision, Marlantes, a decorated combat veteran, has spun the fog and filth of war into an engrossing work of fiction.
The story's central figure is Marlantes' alter ego, a small-town Oregon boy and Ivy League grad named Waino Mellas. As a second lieutenant in the Marines, Mellas is serving a 90-day rotation as a rifle platoon commander — a policy that, he ironically observes, suits the ambitions of a young up-and-comer like himself but ratchets up the risk of fatal error by constantly putting newcomers in charge.
But who said anyone was watching out for the grunts? A continual theme in "Matterhorn" is the idea of incompetence from above that's met by cynicism and acceptance from below. As Mellas is told soon after he arrives, "Things have changed since Truman left. The buck's sent out here now."
This is not an easy book to read. Jungle rot turns hands and feet into a welter of open sores. Food is scarce or consists of canned goods so tasteless that the troops sprinkle them with Tang or lemonade powder.
At one point, the members of Mellas' Bravo Company cough and curse as a plane overhead mistakenly dusts them with Agent Orange. As for the truly heart-stopping moments, "Matterhorn" may be too graphic for some readers.
Through all the lost limbs and lost lives, what's most amazing is how the Marines on the ground remain true to their motto, "semper fi" (always faithful).
Mellas is certainly no maverick. For him, the Marines is a career opportunity. As he builds a bond with his men, however, the dynamics change. And after he tries and fails to rescue one of his soldiers, he questions the reason for his heroics. Was it the desire to save a life or the quest for a medal?
In this claustrophobic, beyond-civilized world, Marlantes expresses not only the unrelenting fear but also the elation of being in combat: "Mellas was transported outside himself, beyond himself. It was as if his mind watched everything coolly while his body raced wildly ... over a barrier whose existence he had not known about until this moment."
The author helps readers wade through a daunting number of characters and combat shorthand by providing a map, an organization chart and a 30-page glossary — all valuable if not essential for those of us who haven't served in the military.
"Matterhorn" is clearly the project of a lifetime for Marlantes, and it deserves a place on the shelf of enduring volumes about the Vietnam War — books such as Neil Sheehan's recently rereleased "A Bright Shining Lie," or fiction like Tim O'Brien's "The Things They Carried."
Even though the book is dedicated to the author's children, it's also a tribute to the training and bravery of those who fought with him in Vietnam.
Ellen Emry Heltzel is a Portland writer and author of "Between the Covers: The Book Babes' Guide to a Woman's Reading Pleasure."
When vice president of Sub Pop Records Megan Jasper isn't running things at the office, she's working in her garden at her West Seattle home where she and her husband Brian spend time relaxing.