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Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War

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Overview

"High in the mountains of South Vietnam, a young lieutenant is flown to an isolated, anonymous hill between Laos and the DMZ where a company of Marines is building a fire-support base. It is his first day in the jungle. From the moment his feet hit the mud - the brass have named the hill Matterhorn - his senses are assaulted by a chaotic swirl of monsoon rain and fog, screeching radios and bulldozers, and the stench of almost two hundred men who are some combination of sick, exhausted, filthy, sodden, and scared out of their minds. He has no idea ...

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Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War

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Overview

"High in the mountains of South Vietnam, a young lieutenant is flown to an isolated, anonymous hill between Laos and the DMZ where a company of Marines is building a fire-support base. It is his first day in the jungle. From the moment his feet hit the mud - the brass have named the hill Matterhorn - his senses are assaulted by a chaotic swirl of monsoon rain and fog, screeching radios and bulldozers, and the stench of almost two hundred men who are some combination of sick, exhausted, filthy, sodden, and scared out of their minds. He has no idea if he is up to this." "So begins the story of second lieutenant Waino Mellas and his comrades in Bravo Company. The year is 1969 and Mellas, a reservist with an Ivy League education and a chip on his shoulder, has been assigned to lead a rifle platoon of forty Marines, most of whom are teenagers. He will need the help of his fellow officers: Fitch, the harried company commander who, at twenty-three, is already straining under the weight of his responsibilities; Hawke, the charismatic executive officer who is suspicious of Mellas's ambition; and Mellas's fellow platoon leaders, Goodwin and Kendall, who have troubles of their own." Soon the company is ordered to abandon Matterhorn and embark on a dangerous mission to sever a crucial North Vietnamese supply line. As the Marines navigate the bewildering valleys and switchbacks of the jungle they endure a series of deadly tests - firefights, mortar attacks, snipers - and are driven forward by a capricious colonel who, thanks to new technology, is trying to fight the war by long-range radio. They are also dogged by racial tension that threatens to tear the company apart. But when the Marines find themselves confronted by a massive enemy regiment, they are thrust into the raw and all-consuming terror of combat. As each man fights for his life and the lives of his friends, Mellas must face the reality of the war, the truth of his motives, and the depth of his commitments. The experience will change him forever.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
From his earliest days on the ground, Lieutenant Waino Mellas — Princeton educated, fresh, green, and uneasy in his new fatigues — has second-guessed his decision to become a marine. Yet here he is, an officer leading a rifle platoon in a desolate corner of South Vietnam. The men in Marlantes's gut-wrenching first novel — young, raw, and far from home — are facing the toughest trial by fire imaginable. Dumped on a jungle hilltop that's shrouded in monsoon rains and clouds, they're too crippled by fatigue, boredom, and the dearth of supplies to question policy. Like most soldiers, they follow orders whether they make sense or not, in a war too complex for them to figure out.

Authentic and unflinching, with dialogue so vivid it plunges readers squarely into the inferno of war, Matterhorn is both white-knuckled adventure and superb literature. From the smallest details — the music, the gear, and the C rations; the smells, the heat, and the humidity — to the most profound judgments made high up the chain of command, it's a tour de force of storytelling. A celebration of the courage and camaraderie of our young men in uniform, and a chilling indictment of the politics of war, Matterhorn is an unforgettable and vital testament that keeps alive the thousands of stories of heroism during what some might consider one of history's darkest and most regrettable moments.

David Masiel
Ironically, the best parts of Matterhorn aren't the battle scenes,…Rather it is Marlantes's treatment of pre-combat tension and rear-echelon politics. It's these in-between spaces that create the real terror of Matterhorn: military and racial politics; fragging that threatens the unit with implosion; and night watch in the jungle, where tigers are as dangerous as the NVA. Given the long list of stellar works, fiction and nonfiction, to come from the Vietnam experience, one might question what more can be said about it. In some ways Matterhorn isn't new at all, but it reminds us of the horror of all war by laying waste to romantic notions and napalming the cool factor of video games and "Generation Kill."
—The Washington Post
Sebastian Junger
Chapter after chapter, battle after battle, Marlantes pushes you through what may be one of the most profound and devastating novels ever to come out of Vietnam—or any war. It's not a book so much as a deployment, and you will not return unaltered…Matterhorn is a raw, brilliant account of war that may well serve as a final exorcism for one of the most painful passages in American history.
—The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly
Thirty years in the making, Marlantes’s epic debut is a dense, vivid narrative spanning many months in the lives of American troops in Vietnam as they trudge across enemy lines, encountering danger from opposing forces as well as on their home turf. Marine lieutenant and platoon commander Waino Mellas is braving a 13-month tour in Quang-Tri province, where he is assigned to a fire-support base and befriends Hawke, older at 22; both learn about life, loss, and the horrors of war. Jungle rot, leeches dropping from tree branches, malnourishment, drenching monsoons, mudslides, exposure to Agent Orange, and wild animals wreak havoc as brigade members face punishing combat and grapple with bitterness, rage, disease, alcoholism, and hubris. A decorated Vietnam veteran, the author clearly understands his playing field (including military jargon that can get lost in translation), and by examining both the internal and external struggles of the battalion, he brings a long, torturous war back to life with realistic characters and authentic, thrilling combat sequences. Marlantes’s debut may be daunting in length, but it remains a grand, distinctive accomplishment. (Apr.)
Library Journal
Even as the Vietnam War recedes into the past, the despair, confusion, and mythology it generated retains a grip on our culture. Debut novelist Marlantes offers a realistic, in-the-trenches look at that war. Matterhorn is a remote jungle base of operations held by the marines. We follow a young reserve lieutenant, Waino Mellas, as he nervously begins command of a squad ordered to take out a North Vietnamese machine gun nest; afterward, the squad is sent into the jungle for obscure reasons. This is the beginning of a long and murderous journey, with little food or water, constant rain, impassable terrain, and enemy ambushes. The soldiers bond with one another, but their faults and divisions are magnified, as racial tensions mount and cultural differences are revealed. The battle scenes, at which the author excels, are frequent, brutal, and viscerally energetic, and the skillfully rendered dialog reveals a bunch of strangers attempting to communicate in life-defeating circumstances. In the end, there are no real victors. VERDICT Obviously not a brief, cheery read, this is a major work that will be a valuable addition to any permanent collection. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 12/09.]—Jim Coan, SUNY Coll. at Oneonta
Kirkus Reviews
An ambitious first novel about the Vietnam War, written over three decades by a Marine veteran of the fight. Less melodramatic and more realistic than Denis Johnson's Tree of Smoke, with which it invites comparison, Marlantes's long but simply structured narrative recounts the unhappy lot of a Marine lieutenant, usually called only Mellas, and the platoon under his command. Stuck in a firebase called Matterhorn, up near the Demilitarized Zone, Mellas, who is handsome, smart, canny and politically astute, if perhaps not a "natural hunter," finds himself in the unenviable position of having what seems like the entire army of North Vietnam bearing down on the post. The long battle that ensues, framing the book, tests the Marines' mettle, and it fells many of them. Marlantes, who saw combat, writes with authority on every aspect of Marine life, from the terrible chow (in one fine moment, he describes an improbable meal made of eggs, chocolate, Tabasco sauce and apricots) to the complex rules ("Bullshit, sir!...I'm a fucking squad leader and squad leaders can have stashes") and the hard realities of Vietnam, from the fragging of unpopular brass and NCOs to death in all kinds of unpleasant ways ("Imagine dying of thirst in a monsoon"). The combat scenes, and there are many, are finely rendered. Overall, the narrative is a little predictable, however, and it offers only a few surprises of character development and plot that can't be seen coming from afar, including a tense, expertly delivered moment in which Mellas attempts to snipe at an NVA colonel: "Mellas waited as patiently as an animal. Time stopped. Only this one task. Wait for the bastard to turn around so he could see the bulletscoming."Readable and well written, though not quite in the class of Tim O'Brien, Philip Caputo, Michael Herr, Robert Stone and other top-flight literary chroniclers of the war in Vietnam.
The Barnes & Noble Review

Most war novels are burdened by the literary landmarks which came before them. Writers like Erich Maria Remarque, Norman Mailer, James Jones, and Tim O'Brien set the bar almost impossibly high for contemporary writers.

Karl Marlantes' debut novel attempts to meet the challenge of its predecessors with sincerity and authenticity. His tale of a Marine company in Vietnam, Matterhorn, puts the reader in the thick of combat like few others I've read. It comes as no surprise to learn that Marlantes served with the 3rd Marine Division in Vietnam and, as a lieutenant, was awarded the Navy Cross for leading an assault on a hill just south of the DMZ in 1969. Marlantes started writing Matterhorn in 1975 and worked on it steadily for the next three decades until a galley (which originally weighed in at 1,600 pages) caught the eye of Grove/Atlantic editor Morgan Entrekin.

The novel mobilizes an ambitiously large cast of characters as a depleted company of Marines overtakes and holds a hilltop against a much larger force from the North Vietnam Army:

The hill, one of many similar unnamed hills in the area, all of them over a mile high and shrouded by cold monsoon rain and clouds, had the misfortune of being just a little higher than the others. For this reason, a staff officer sitting fifty-five kilometers to the east at Fifth Marine Division headquarters in Dong Ha had picked it to be flattened and shorn of vegetation to accommodate an artillery battery of 105-millimeter howitzers. The same officer had also named it Matterhorn, in keeping with the present vogue of naming new fire support bases after Swiss mountains.

Despite the attempt by military brass to instill a sense of alpine peace among the men with the name Matterhorn, the hill soon becomes little more than a patch of ground pocked with rocket craters and soaked with American blood. In the course of the novel, the Marines are ordered to take, abandon, and then re-take this piece of land that "none of them cared about."

At the center of the novel is Marlantes' alter-ego, a lieutenant named Waino Mellas, whose combat experience is as green as his uniform -- something he is all too keenly aware of:

As Mellas plodded slowly up the hill, with Fisher next to him and Hamilton automatically following with the radio, he became embarrassed by the sound his boots made as they pulled free of the mud, fearing that it would draw attention to the fact that they were still shiny and black.

A Marine recruit fresh out of high school, Mellas feels "awkward and incompetent" once he arrives in Asia, unable even to remember his soldiers' names. He's politically ambitious, dreaming of the day when he can take command of a company -- even though it may come at the expense of the current commander being killed.

The first casualty in the novel, however, is a Marine's manhood. Literally. Marlantes tells how a leech crawls inside a sergeant's penis, leaving the company medic to take desperate measures, described in excruciating thoroughness. As squirm-inducing as such moments may be, the vivid details of combat experience are what propel Matterhorn forward. For instance, when the first battle scene arrives, nearly 100 pages into the novel, Marlantes succinctly describes how it begins: "Then the jungle ripped apart. It was as if someone had torn a sheet of solid sound." Or this, about a platoon on patrol: "They walked with a constant feeling of irritation and frustration. A piece of gear catching on a branch became a monstrous injustice. Bumping into someone from behind because of fatigue-dulled senses brought out unreasonable anger rather than the usual sarcastic comment."

Matterhorn aims much of its fire at the blinkered generals moving units around a map like so many chess pieces. The Matterhorn is, essentially, a useless hill and has little strategic value; but the senior officers plotting the war from 50 miles away don't care about real estate, they're more worried about body counts. As one officer says, "It's attrition that counts in this war. Turf doesn't mean jack shit." The fate of a company and its men hangs on the brainstorming back at headquarters. The difference between a man walking out of the jungle alive or getting blown to fleshy bits often rests in the political ambition or tactical stupidity of the well-fed colonels wearing starched uniforms in their cool, dry headquarters.

While Marlantes is skilled at conducting large battle scenes, he sometimes falls short at the level of his sentences. One wishes he would relax enough to trust the reader; instead, he (or his editors) feels the need to define every acronym and military term as they appear in the narrative -- despite the fact that there is a 30-page glossary at the end of the novel.

Moreover, any writer engaging imaginatively with the history of American soldiers at war has a double problem. On one side are the pop-culture clichés and stereotypes which have been crammed into our heads by war movies, National Guard recruiting ads, and video games. Marlantes largely steers clear of these, but the question of Matterhorn's literary heritage is a tougher issue. It's a book which most obviously lives in the shadow of Mailer's debut, The Naked and the Dead, and while Marlantes reaches for the brutal power of Mailer's sentences, his book never quite matches the visceral punch of that World War Two classic.

But once he hits his stride (and most of the military jargon has been exhaustively defined), Marlantes displays all the confidence of a veteran who knows what he's talking about. For all the complexities of the Matterhorn battle, Marlantes explains tactical operations -- from the briefing room to the battlefield -- with precision and clarity, rarely dumbing it down for the reader.

Marked on every page by the blood, sweat, and fears of combat, Matterhorn calls us to once again confront war's dreadful appeal to the imagination, and its even more dreadful price in real lives.

--David Abrams

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780802119285
  • Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
  • Publication date: 3/23/2010
  • Pages: 600
  • Sales rank: 211,092
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 2.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Karl Marlantes

A graduate of Yale University and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Karl Marlantes served as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals. This is his first novel.

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Read an Excerpt

MATTERHORN

A NOVEL OF THE VIETNAM WAR
By KARL MARLANTES

Atlantic Monthly Press

Copyright © 2010 Karl Marlantes
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8021-1928-5


Chapter One

Mellas stood beneath the gray monsoon clouds on the narrow strip of cleared ground between the edge of the jungle and the relative safety of the perimeter wire. He tried to focus on counting the other thirteen Marines of the patrol as they emerged single file from the jungle, but exhaustion made focusing difficult. He also tried, unsuccessfully, to shut out the smell of the shit, which sloshed in the water that half-filled the open latrine pits above him on the other side of the wire. Rain dropped from the lip of his helmet, fell past his eyes, and spattered onto the satiny olive cloth that held the armor plating of his cumbersome new flak jacket. The dark green T-shirt and boxer shorts that his mother had dyed for him just three weeks ago clung to his skin, heavy and clammy beneath his camouflage utility jacket and trousers. He knew there would be leeches clinging to his legs, arms, back, and chest beneath his wet clothes, even though he couldn't feel them now. It was the way with leeches, he mused. They were so small and thin before they started sucking your blood that you rarely felt them unless they fell on you from a tree, and you never felt them piercing your skin. There was some sort of natural anesthetic in their saliva. You would discover them later, swollen with blood, sticking out from your skin like little pregnant bellies.

When the last Marine entered the maze of switchbacks and crude gates in the barbed wire, Mellas nodded to Fisher, the squad leader, one of three who reported to him. "Eleven plus us three," he said. Fisher nodded back, put his thumb up in agreement, and entered the wire. Mellas followed him, trailed by his radio operator, Hamilton.

The patrol emerged from the wire, and the young Marines climbed slowly up the slope of the new fire support base, FSB Matterhorn, bent over with fatigue, picking their way around shattered stumps and dead trees that gave no shelter. The verdant underbrush had been hacked down with K-bar knives to clear fields of fire for the defensive lines, and the jungle floor, once veined with rivulets of water, was now only sucking clay.

The thin, wet straps of Mellas's two cotton ammunition bandoleers dug into the back of his neck, each with the weight of twenty fully loaded M-16 magazines. These straps had rubbed him raw. All he wanted to do now was get back to his hooch and take them off, along with his soaking boots and socks. He also wanted to go unconscious. That, however, wasn't possible. He knew he would finally have to deal with the nagging problem that Bass, his platoon sergeant, had laid on him that morning and that he had avoided by using the excuse of leaving on patrol. A black kid-he couldn't remember the name; a machine gunner in Third Squad-was upset with the company gunnery sergeant, whose name he couldn't remember either. There were forty new names and faces in Mellas's platoon alone, and almost 200 in the company, and black or white they all looked the same. It overwhelmed him. From the skipper right on down, they all wore the same filthy tattered camouflage, with no rank insignia, no way of distinguishing them. All of them were too thin, too young, and too exhausted. They all talked the same, too, saying fuck, or some adjective, noun, or adverb with fuck in it, every four words. Most of the intervening three words of their conversations dealt with unhappiness about food, mail, time in the bush, and girls they had left behind in high school. Mellas swore he'd succumb to none of it.

This black kid wanted out of the bush to have his recurrent headaches examined, and some of the brothers were stirring things up in support. The gunnery sergeant thought the kid was malingering and should have his butt kicked. Then another black kid refused to have his hair cut and people were up in arms about that. Mellas was supposed to be fighting a war. No one at the Basic School had said he'd be dealing with junior Malcolm X's and redneck Georgia crackers. Why couldn't the Navy corpsmen just decide shit like whether headaches were real or not? They were supposed to be the medical experts. Did the platoon commanders on Iwo Jima have to deal with crap like this?

As Mellas plodded slowly up the hill, with Fisher next to him and Hamilton automatically following with the radio, he became embarrassed by the sound his boots made as they pulled free of the mud, fearing that it would draw attention to the fact that they were still shiny and black. He quickly covered for this by complaining to Fisher about the squad's machine gunner, Hippy, making too much noise when Fisher had asked for the machine gun to come to the head of the small column because the point man thought he'd heard movement. Just speaking about the recent near-encounter with an enemy Mellas had not yet seen started his insides humming again, the vibration of fear that was like a strong electric potential with no place to discharge. Part of him was relieved that it had been a near miss but another part acted peeved that the noise might have cost them an opportunity for action, and this peevishness in turn irked Fisher.

When they reached the squad's usual position in the company lines, Mellas could see that Fisher could barely contain his own annoyance by the way he nearly threw to the ground the three staves he'd cut for himself and a couple of friends while out on the patrol. These staves were raw material for short-timer's sticks, elaborately carved walking sticks, roughly an inch and a half in diameter and three to five feet long. Some were simple calendars, others works of folk art. Each stick was marked in a way that showed how many days its owner had survived on his thirteen-month tour of duty and how many days were left to go. Mellas had also been anxious about the sound Fisher had made cutting the three staves with a machete, but he had said nothing. He was still in a delicate position: nominally in charge of the patrol, because he was the platoon commander, but until he was successfully broken in he was also under the orders of Lieutenant Fitch, the company commander, to do everything Fisher said. Mellas had accepted the noise for two reasons, both political. Fitch had basically said Fisher was in charge, so why buck Fitch? Fitch was the guy who could promote Mellas to executive officer, second in command, when Second Lieutenant Hawke rotated out of the bush. That would put him in line for company commander-unless Hawke wanted it. A second reason was that Mellas hadn't been sure if the noise was dangerous, and he was far more worried about asking stupid questions than finding out. Too many stupid comments and dumb questions at this stage could make it more difficult to gain the respect of the platoon, and it was a lot harder to get ahead if the snuffs didn't like you or thought you were incompetent. The fact that Hawke, his predecessor, had been nearly worshipped by the platoon did not help matters.

Mellas and Hamilton left Fisher at Second Squad's line of holes and slowly climbed up a slope so steep that when Mellas slipped backward in the mud he barely had to bend his knee to stop himself. Hamilton, bowed nearly double with the weight of the radio, kept poking its antenna into the slope in front of him. The fog that swirled around them obscured their goal: a sagging makeshift shelter they had made by snapping their rubberized canvas ponchos together and hanging the ponchos over a scrap of communication wire strung only four feet above the ground between two blasted bushes. This hooch, along with two others that stood just a few feet away from it, formed what was called, not without irony, the platoon command post.

Mellas wanted to crawl inside his hooch and make the world disappear, but he knew this would be stupid and any rest would be short. It would be dark in a couple of hours, and the platoon had to set out trip flares in case any soldiers of the North Vietnamese Army-the NVA-approached. After that, the platoon had to rig the claymore mines, which were placed in front of their fighting holes and were detonated by pulling on a cord; they delivered 700 steel balls in a fan-shaped pattern at groin height. In addition, the uncompleted sections of the barbed wire had to be booby-trapped. If Mellas wanted to heat his C-rations he had to do so while it was still daylight, otherwise the flame would make a perfect aiming point. Then he had to inspect the forty Marines of his platoon for immersion foot and make sure everyone took the daily dose of dapsone for jungle rot and the weekly dose of chloroquine for malaria.

He and Hamilton stopped just in front of Bass, the platoon sergeant, who was squatting outside the hooches in the rain making coffee in a number-ten can set over a piece of burning C-4 plastic explosive. The C-4 hissed and left an acrid smell in the air but was preferred to the eye-burning stink of the standard issue trioxane heat tabs. Bass was twenty-one and on his second tour. He emptied several small envelopes of powdered C-ration coffee into the boiling water and peered into the can. The sleeves of his utility jacket were neatly rolled into cuffs just below his elbows, revealing forearms that were large and muscular. Mellas, watching Bass stir, set the M-16 he had borrowed from Bass against a log. It had taken very little coaxing from Bass to convince Mellas that it was stupid to rely on the standard-issue .45 pistols the Marine Corps deemed sufficient for junior officers. He pulled off the wet cotton ammunition bandoleers and let them fall to the ground: twenty magazines, each filled with two interwoven rows of bullets. Then he shrugged out of his belt suspenders and dropped them to the mud, along with their attached .45 automatic, three quart-size plastic canteens, pistol ammunition, his K-bar, battlefield compresses to stop bleeding, two M-26 fragmentation hand grenades, three smoke grenades, and his compass. Breathing deeply with relief, he kept watching the coffee, its smell reminding him of the ever-present pot on his mother's stove. He didn't want to go check the platoon's weapons or clean his own. He wanted something warm, and then he wanted to lie down and sleep. But with dark coming there was no time.

He undid his steel-spring blousing garters, which held the ends of his trousers tightly against his boots as protection against leeches. Three leeches had still managed to get through on his left leg. Two were attached and there was a streak of dried blood where a third had engorged itself and dropped off. Mellas found it in his sock, shook it loose onto the ground, and stepped on it with his other foot, watching his own blood pop out of its body. He took out insect repellant and squeezed a stream onto the other two leeches still attached to his skin. They twisted in pain and dropped off, leaving a slow trickle of blood behind.

Bass handed him some coffee in an empty C-ration fruit cocktail can and then poured another can for Hamilton, who had dumped his radio in front of his and Mellas's hooch and was sitting on it. Hamilton took the coffee, raised the can to Bass in a toast, and wrapped his fingers around the can to warm them.

"Thanks, Sergeant Bass," Mellas said, careful to use the title Bass had earned, knowing that Bass's goodwill was crucial. He sat down on a wet, rotting log. Bass described what had happened while Mellas was out on patrol. FAC-man, the company's enlisted forward air controller, had once again not been able to talk a resupply chopper down through the clouds, so this had been the fourth day without resupply. There was still no definitive word on the firefight the day before between Alpha Company and an NVA unit of unknown size in the valley below them, but the rumor that four Marines had been killed in action was now confirmed.

Mellas tightened his lips and clenched his teeth to press back his fear. He couldn't help looking down onto the cloud-covered ridges that stretched out below them into North Vietnam, just four kilometers away. Down there were the four KIAs, four dead kids. Somewhere in that gray-green obscurity, Alpha Company had just been in the shit. Bravo's turn was coming.

That meant his turn was coming, something that had been only a possibility when he had joined the Marines right out of high school. He had entered a special officer candidate program that allowed him to attend college while training in the summers and getting much-needed pay, and he had envisioned telling admiring people, and maybe someday voters, that he was an ex-Marine. He had never actually envisioned being in combat in a war that none of his friends thought was worth fighting. When the Marines landed at Da Nang during his freshman year, he had to get a map out to see where that was. He had wanted to go into the Marine Air Wing and be an air traffic controller, but each administrative turning point, his grades in college, his grades in Basic School, and the shortage of infantry officers had implacably moved him to where he was now, a real Marine officer leading a real Marine rifle platoon, and scared nearly witless. It occurred to him that because of his desire to look good coming home from a war, he might never come home at all.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from MATTERHORN by KARL MARLANTES Copyright © 2010 by Karl Marlantes. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Interviews & Essays

In the late 1960s, after graduating from Yale, I led a Marine rifle platoon in combat in Vietnam. When I came home I was deeply troubled by the chasm that the war had opened up in our society. Like many, I tried to ignore it. I got married, started a family, and began a career in business. But in my spare time I also began a novel based on my experiences in Vietnam. My goal was to write a book that was neither anti-war nor pro-war—I just wanted to create a story with a true depiction of what wars do to the young people we send to fight them.

I spent the next thirty-five years working on Matterhorn and trying to convince literary agents and publishers to read it. In short, they didn’t want to. (I can hardly hold it against them: it’s a long novel about an unpopular war.) Eventually I managed to place the book with a tiny nonprofit publisher in Berkeley who agreed to do a small print run. Before it came out, my wife suggested that the publisher submit it to some contests. “At least somebody will have to read it,” she said. It went to Barnes & Noble, where Jill Lamar, the head of the Discover Great New Writers program, read it and gave a copy to Sessalee Hensley, the main fiction buyer. They both loved it and agreed that it should be given a chance to reach a broader audience. They took it upon themselves to submit copies of the book to several larger publishers, one of whom agreed to join forces with the small press and give the book an aggressive launch. I still get close to tears when I think of the generosity of Jill and Sessalee to do what they did for me and my book.

Now that Matterhorn is finally being published, a lot of people have asked me why I kept at it for so long. The first time I was asked, two memories came instantly to mind. The first is from early 1970 when I was working at the Pentagon. One day I had to deliver a document to the White House. As I walked down Pennsylvania Avenue in my Marine uniform, I was accosted by a group of students who were standing across the street and waving Vietcong and North Vietnamese flags. They shouted obscenities and jeered at me. I could only stand there stunned, thinking of my dead and maimed friends, wanting desperately to tell these students that my friends and I were just like them: their age, even younger, with the same feelings, yearnings, and passions. The second memory was of a girl I’d fallen for who was doing her master’s thesis on D. H. Lawrence. One night we were sitting on the stairs to her apartment and I mentioned that I’d been a Marine. “They’re the worst,” she cried, and abruptly ran up the stairs. I never saw her again.

I believe that the chasm the Vietnam War opened in this country is still wide and deep, and my struggle to write and publish Matterhorn for the past thirty-five years has been my way of trying to communicate across that street and up those stairs. Ultimately, the only way to bridge the chasms that divide us is by getting inside other people’s heads and seeing the world through other people’s eyes. That is one of the greatest gifts of literature and one of the many things I hope my novel will accomplish.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 625 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 24, 2010

    Douglas Kidd Alpha 1 - 4 1969

    A friend from our company passed the book along to me . Day one : I sat down approx, 1:30 pm . When I next looked at the clock it was midnite ! I was in the same battallion ,only a differnt company and the same year as Mr Marlantes. I was a machine gunner. By the middle of the first chapter I was putting faces from our platoon to the characters he was writing about . I could not put the book down and when I did it was front and foremost on my mind. It took me back there ! Our companies crisscrossed each other so I was in the same terrain , situations etc . The language he wrote it in is exactly the way we talked, the problems were there, the jungle, leeches, monsoons, no resupplies because the helicopters couldn't fly . We went , I believe , for a 5 day stretch with no food or good water due to torrential rains in the mtns and jungles. He also explained about why we had to go that extra mile when the company was moving and everyone was unimaginably worn to the bone . He described how the " upper echelon " worked according to thier desires not knowing the reality of the jungles . He clearly defined the lines between the " lifers " and the grunts out there on the perimeter who were given no knowledge about anything that was going on only what was required for them to do ...or die trying. When I finished the book , I felt as tho I had just gotten back home . My emotions and nerves were very close to the surface , I had buried them deeply many years ago . I'd like to thank Mr Malantes for the most magnificant read I have ever experianced about being " in country " and the Quang Tri Providance .

    63 out of 63 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2010

    I've waited 40 years for someone to get it right

    I spent 22 months in the same areas as the author during my service as a Marine in RVN. I have never really talked about it much in part because I didn't feel listeners could really understand what I was trying to say or understand what I felt. Vietnam veterans now have an interpreter and a spokesperson. Thank you Lt. Marlantes.

    10 out of 10 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 27, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Surviving the Fog of War

    This is a novel for the ages. I could not put this book down. It is quite simply one of the best I have read in my lifetime (although this is a work of fiction, I am still using Michael Kerr's 'Dispatches' as benchmark). Marlantes has created a masterpiece in capturing the terror, the heroics, and the grind of Marines in combat. This novel grabs you into the dense weight of warfare in Vietnam (after Tet offensive) and the author's writing is like a phosphorescent flare in the fog of war. All I can say is, "There it is."

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 30, 2010

    Matterhorn

    Karl Malantes brilliantly examines the nature of war in his book Matterhorn. This is not just another horror story of Vietnam, and while it does have plenty of horror, it also has so much more. This is the first real book to examine race relations in the military during the conflict with any real honesty, and the rising tensions between whites and blacks provides an engaging side plot to the main action. As the characters mature in their views and strength of spirit over the course of the novel, one really begins to understand what Vietnam was, while at the same time realizing that you can never really understand. Matterhorn is gripping, honest, horrifying, and ultimately a masterpiece.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 15, 2010

    An incredible book

    Although this book is reviewed as a "guy" book, I (a female) found it to be Intense, powerful, compelling, compassionate, well written and just an incredible book. I did not want to put it down.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 6, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Matterhorn

    Being a Viet-Nam vet, this book came through about as it was over there! Plot was great, no flaws in wording relating to the service, country or the military wording. The book was excellent reading. Took me about 1 1/2 days. Hard to put down. Great read. Scale of 1-10, I give it a 10. That's high!!!!
    Thank You!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 4, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Excellent novel of Marines in combat, and a classic tale of Vietnam

    For me, Matterhorn was a page-turner, written by a Marine officer who obviously knows both the terrain of combat leadership and the brutal demands placed on those who would aspire to be Marine infantrymen. As a former Marine officer and combat veteran of Vietnam, including a big operation in the mountains of western I Corps, I found the character of Waino Mellas to be well-drawn and authentic. Also, let me assure the reader, the tough issues of race that the author describes were real, and we as a country have come a long way since Vietnam toward resolving those problems, compared to where we were then. Marine officers like Mellas did the heavy lifting to calm the turmoil and racial tension, trying to do the right thing. I also liked the way Lieutenant Mellas evolved from being a cherry lieutenant along for the ride, to a more complex, subtle facilitator of events behind the scenes. This is a great read! This novel will be remembered as one of the classics written about Marines in combat during the Vietnam War. Habusix, former Captain US Marine Corps

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 26, 2010

    Beautifully written book of historical importance that provides exciting plot, compelling characters and emotional involvement

    As a woman who graduated from college around the time that Matterhorn takes place, this book has helped me to understand a little about what the men my age who went into the military were facing. Marlantes' ability to portray characters and their relationships with each other is commendable - I really want to know more about what happened to them after the book ended! In addition his treatment of relevant issues of the times - the Executive Branch's failure to comprehend what was going on at the battlefront and to make rational decisions on how to support the troops, racism as played out in the military, the incredible toll on the soldiers taken by this type of warfare, etc. - provide a strong background of realism -- and accuracy. This book is very hard to put down......

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 30, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Vietnam Vet Tells Us a Story We All Need to Hear

    As a history teacher I've studied and taught about the Vietnam War. I watched it happen on TV; I had friends serve there, two died; I know all of the stats, chronology, and SNAFU's that have been written about. I think I even sense a tiny taste of the visceral fear and anger, as well as the importance of comradery. I read this book over Memorial Day Weekend, purposely, and am filled with awe at the tenacity of our soldiers, sick at heart that any human must find him/herself in a situation like this, and tremendously angry that we all don't try harder to end war. It is all too clear that the military-industrial complex is still running this country. Enough about that -- the book is hard to put down. It presents characters that are quite complex and believable; it touches on just about every aspect of the Vietnam War that should be touched on: fragging officers, military leaders who gain promotions only through battlefield action, race relations, poor supply, life/death decisions mid-battle, etc., all without gratuitously graphic detail of injury and death, but still believable within the framework of the novel, and without definitively taking sides on some of the issues. Marlantes was a Marine in Vietnam during the war, but I honestly don't know whether I'd encourage a friend who is a Vietnam vet to read this book. He doesn't have to. But, after you read it, you might want to have a frank conversation with a vet, and think long and deeply about how we, as humans, can allow our current concept of power to include war and killing "others" to continue.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 24, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Something Missing - An Ending

    I read through the professional and reader reviews of this book after I read it myself. I have read many Vietnam fiction and nonfiction books and..
    I can agree with the good descriptions of the local area and battle information. What I have a problem with is the ending. So what happens at the end? Things just carry on and Mellas grows as a person?

    It feels like Marlantes got tired and just stopped. I think there is much more to say but we will never know because it stops short of providing a good conclusion or even preparing the reader for another volume.

    3 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 25, 2010

    Wow

    A crazy beautiful book. I couldn't stop reading it. I was kinda bothered by the end but then I think there could never be a "good" ending to this story. It is what is is and Karl Marlantes brings you to that understanding. Now on my list of favorites.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 17, 2010

    I was there and it is all true down to the mud on my boots.

    I was a Corpsman with Bravo Company, 1st Battalion/5th Marine Regiment, 1st Marine Division 1967 to 1969. This book is exactly what took place, how we talked, what we felt, how scared we were, how we bleed and how some of us died. The characters are as real as the guys in my outfit who lived and died in the jungle of Vietnam back in 1967 till I came home in 1969. I can smell the blood and feel the pain of my fellows brothers in arms.The author was right on the money with his portrayal of what it was like to be in a Marine rifle platoon in the middle of HELL.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 11, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Vietnam as experienced on the ground

    This is the story from the soldier on the ground's perspective. No overarching themes, analysis, politics or in-depth tactics or equipment discussions. It is the pure story of the racking difficulties, frustration, terror and boredom experience by the average front-line trooper. All delivered in well written insightful prose. I could not put it down. The impact on reading is felt not expressed.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 5, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A worthy addition to the literature on the Vietnam War

    Karl Marlantes' book on Vietnam was well-worth the 30-year effort he apparently put into writing it. Remarkably, for a book that developed over such a long period, the plot holds together coherently and the development of the main characters is seamless and gripping.

    While focused on the Vietnam War era, this book is relevant and timely to readers today in its portrayal of the confusion and rage that are felt by front line soldiers (I am guessing, I have no war experience) in reaction to the decisions of their superiors, the magnifying effect that war has on emotions and relationships, the loneliness of young soldiers far from home, and the difficulty that young, naive men have in coping with the actions that they must take in battle. Without any strong moral guidance around them, the young men in this story have difficulty deciding between right and wrong: the tragedy is that when they make the wrong decision, the fact that they are in a war zone makes the results tragic and gruesome. The racial tensions of the 1970's provide an interesting backdrop to the story, as well as directly impacting the events of the story.

    The elements of the plot, the taking and re-taking of hills in a mountain range near the DMZ - one of which is nicknamed Matterhorn - keep all of these themes moving forward, draw the reader into the story, and in my case made me feel some of the same emotions as the characters: anger, futility, and sadness. The cleverly and compassionately described characters made my sadness all the more vivid when some of the best ones were killed.

    While reading the book I stayed alert for any signs that the story didn't proceed smoothly due to the long timespan over which it was written - but I didn't find any. The only inkling I had that Marlantes may have changed as a writer and a person over the years while he worked on the book is that the last paragraph reads like poetry: it's beautiful and somewhat ethereal writing, but fully grounded in the story. I'm not sure if Marlantes would have been capable of that kind of writing when he started out, but I'm glad he arrived there. The beauty of that chapter heightened my disappointment when I realized I had finished the book: the thick glossary of terms at the end had fooled me into thinking I had a few more chapters to go!

    Karl Marlantes, if you haven't sold the screen rights yet, make sure you sell them to someone who will do a good job with the movie!

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 17, 2010

    Wow

    This book is absolutely astounding. I have never read a more heartfelt, amazing, but at the same time dramatically intense. The originality that has been compelled into this book is the best I've ever seen. Karl's first-hand knowledge, combined with a writing style that fits perfectly well creates a masterpiece. I agree that this book is destined to become a classic. Although there is intense violence and profanity, the book remains a wonderful work of historical fiction. The author seems to have combined a complex work of fiction with the entertaining simplicity that many desire. I love his discripitions of Vietnamese combat, the strain of walking through the rainforest, and the sad despair of a fallen character of that you have become to love.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 30, 2010

    matterhorn is an amazing book!

    matterhorn, an amazing story filled with believeable and strong characters. a story of vietnam and all it's ramifications, i highly recommend this book.

    3 out of 3 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 16, 2010

    A "must" read

    This may go down as a classic of it's genre and of books about that period; if it had been published 30 years ago it would easily stand with the other works that helped interpret and set perspective of the Viet Nam War.

    Very well fine flow to the narrative, well defined characters and clear situations and should be easy for even those without military experience to follow. This is men in combat, but more than what one would expect, it's full of humanity; verges into the poetic with one of the finest endings of anything i've read in quite some time. Excellent work.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 14, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Well-Crafted, Compelling Work

    Though this is a novel, clearly the author's experience is reflected in the story. This is one of the mroe compelling reads I can remember in some time. So much is packed into the text that it's impossible to imagine that only a few months have elapsed from beginning to end.

    There are parts of the book that can be very difficult to work through because of the violence, and it should not be read by those with weak stomachs. However, the difficulties facing a young officer in Vietnam are well-told throughout. Violence certainly is one, but so is the doubt, fear, loss of friends, loss of innocence, racial tension, disgust over order, lack of food, medical conditions, and the need to appear strong and intelligent to a host of men. As in real life, none of the characters are perfect and they all struggle with their own fear, vanity, and ambitions.

    This is not a book for those lookign for a "happy ending" but is an excellent read for those who want to know what it was like as a young man thrust into a leadserhip role in a jungle war.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 17, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Matterhorn - There it is...

    This is a great book! If you enjoy reading historical fiction, this one is a must read. It is well written with an originality and true picture of the reality of the war that few historical fictions possess. It will give you a new respect for those who fought in Viet Nam.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 18, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Matterhorn transports the reader to another time. A time of war and peace. A time when lack of support downplayed the ultimate sacrifice. A time when bravery was the rule, not the exception. A time to remember and celebrate the hero that cared.

    The Matterhorn is the tenth highest mountain in Switzerland. On July 14, 1865, seven people made the first ascent. Over 500 people have died climbing the mountain since then. Deaths are due to falls, inexperience, under estimating the mountain, bad weather and falling rocks.

    A hundred years later, the Marines of Bravo Company climbed a hill in Vietnam - code name Matterhorn. Falling hand grenades created a path of destruction among the climbing Marines. Inexperience prevailed in the form of a second lieutenant eager to prove his worth, get a medal and the command of his own company of Marines.

    A Battalion Commander under estimates the value of preserving the Matterhorn. Then he learns that a junior officer's instinct greatly exceeds the knowledge he acquired "in country". Bad weather surrounds the hill like a cloak of fear. Despite that, a helicopter pilot flies when he should not, to where he can't see, into an impossible landing zone. Falling shells from mortars compound the danger like an avalanche of devastation.

    Matterhorn explains the true significance of Semper Fi. Thought provoking passages about the menace of leeches, jungle rot, thirst, hunger and stoicism will fill the hearts and minds of a myraid of readers.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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