In the High Peaks

Friday, June 4, 2010

The Challenge of Reading Matterhorn

Since the night before last, I've been reading Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes. Even though I've only read 139 pages of this 566-page chunkster (not counting the 20+ page glossary), I'm finding that I have lots to say about it already.

The book fully delivers on its promise to put the reader in the middle of an infantry company of Marines in South Vietnam, not far from the DMZ (de-militarized zone, which artificially separated South from North Vietnam). It's monsoon season in a steamy, impenetrable jungle. As I read, I can see the men lying on plastic-covered mud in their tiny "hooches." I can see a platoon go forth on patrol, using machetes to cut their way through bamboo 12-feet tall. I feel the fear they sense with their crunching footsteps announcing their presence to the "gooks," the North Vietnamese Army.

Marlantes has the most trouble with characterization, perhaps because there are dozens of characters. This little city of young men--most of them introduced in the first two chapters--makes for hard reading, but is well worth the trouble. It's apparent that Marlantes has worked hard to forge distinct characters, but it's not his strong suit.

Marlantes creates a political and cultural society from this group of men with all its racial, social class, and military rank & hierarchy tensions. This aspect of the novel is fascinating. It steers clear of the Band of Brothers romanticism of men in combat. Having viewed that award-winning HBO production this past winter, I can say that I (and most people) prefer to think of men in combat as a band of brothers, but I don't believe this whole-hearted camaraderie is reality. It's not a black-and-white issue, of course, one or the other. What I'm trying to say is that the relationships among men within a platoon or any military unit are very complicated. Camaraderie and care for one's mates are part of it, that's true, but TV and movies like to simplify those relationships, and Matterhorn does not try to do that.

I hope to write another post about Matterhorn after I've turned the last page. I believe it's an important book.


  1. Hi Judith. Thanks for blogging about Matterhorn. I'll be interested to see how you like the book in its entirety. I'd also like to invite you to our Facebook community page. There you can find articles about Matterhorn and a list of his author tour events. I hope you enjoy the rest of the book. :)

  2. Judith,

    Thanks for referring my to your blog and posts about Matterhorn (very insightful). I actually started listening to the audio version of Matterhorn, but given the fact it is very very long (like 17 discs) and my commute only 6 miles each way, I would have never finished it before its due date. I ended up returning it and hope to get the hardcover version sometime soon. It sounds so powerful.