Atlantic Monthly Press, $24.95, 9780802119285/080211928X, one-day laydown March 23, 2010)
Once in a while, a wondrous and remarkable book comes along, written from the deep places of the heart with passion and courage. Matterhorn is that book. Karl Marlantes's timeless tale of bravery, misery, stupidity and love is nothing short of a hero's journey, a quest for meaning. If I had any reservations about reading another novel about the Vietnam War, I soon abandoned them in this mesmerizing, heart-pounding ride through three months of combat, where the rhythm of war gripped me relentlessly.
Matterhorn begins in 1969, during the winter monsoon season in Quang-Tri province, where 2nd Lt. Waino Mellas is assigned to a fire support base with the 1st Battalion, 24th Marines. Commanding a rifle platoon of 40 Marines was not what he had in mind when he joined the reserves nor was actual combat part of the plan, but the shortage of infantry officers has changed that. Still, Mellas is ambitious and is soon trying to work the system to get ahead, take over the company, win a medal and save his own skin. At the same time, he fears he's too chickenshit to lead. He'll find out immediately, since the three platoons of Bravo Company have an assignment--occupy the hill dubbed Matterhorn.
Matterhorn, over a mile high and shrouded by cold monsoon rains and gray clouds, is to be defoliated and flattened to accommodate an artillery battery. Despite delays due to a barrage by an NVA machine gun, the impenetrable fog and the constant, badgering wrath of battalion commander Lt. Col. Simpson, Bravo spends six spirit-breaking days completing the bunkers they were ordered to construct and a seventh day resting by doubling their patrols. Then they are ordered by Simpson to leave Matterhorn and head into the valley to look for the enemy. Simpson, breaking open a second bottle of Wild Turkey, says, "I smell 'em, goddamn it, I smell 'em." As he makes plans to divert Bravo Company, his assistant, Maj. Blakely, wonders when--or if--the last supply drop was scheduled. Then, as the whiskey gets smoother, the question leaves his mind.
The platoon makes the best progress it can, but it's never enough for Simpson, who looks at a map but doesn't understand the terrain. They start to collapse in the cold rain, suffering everything from jungle rot to hypothermia to malaria. Men--boys, really--need to be medevaced out, but Simpson remains relentless in pushing them. They need toughening up. They need to regain their pride. They need to go back to Matterhorn.
So Bravo moves out again, with no resupply and more casualties to come. Starving and thirsty, some of the kids try eating various plants and peel tree bark to chew. They lick dew and fog off their ponchos. "This march was not in four-four time. There was no time. There was forever. Trees creaked unseen above them. Direction became meaningless. The compass needle pointed only to darkness." They assault Matterhorn, now taken over by NVA, entrenched in the bunkers the Marines had just built.
"The fog hung thick and heavy as the kids formed into a single line on the south side of the hill. Mellas felt as if the clouds above him were slabs of slate. The kids were fatigued and filled with despair at the insanity of it all. Yet they were all checking ammunition, sliding bolts back and forth, preparing to participate in the insanity. It was as if the veterans of the company, succumbing to this insanity, had decided to commit suicide. Mellas, sick with exhaustion, now knew why men threw themselves on hand grenades."
Two of the most powerful themes in Matterhorn are played out as the assault winds on, with heavy losses: the adrenaline and terror of combat and the deep bonds formed among the Marines.
The monotony mixed with fear creates unbearable tension, where in an instant fatigue gets swept away by terror. On an earlier patrol,
"The fourteen-man snake moved in spasms. The point man would suddenly crouch, eyes and ears straining, and those behind him would bunch up, crouch, and wait to move again. They would get tired, let down their guard. Then, frightened by a strange sound, they would become alert once again. Their eyes flickered rapidly back and forth as they tried to look in all directions at once. They carried Kool-Aid packages, Tang--anything to kill the chemical taste of the water in their plastic canteens. Soon the smears of purple and orange Kool-Aid on their lips combined with the fear in their eyes to make them look like children returning from a birthday party at which the hostess had shown horror films."
And the night holds a special dread, when wind and rain can mask the sound of the enemy crawling toward them: "The light died. Voices were silenced. Darkness and fear replaced light and reason. The whisper of a leaf scraping on bark would make heads turn involuntarily and hearts gallop. The surrounding blackness and the unseen wall of dripping growth left no place to run. In that black wet nothingness the perimeter became just a memory. Only imagination gave it form."
In combat, the Marines aren't fighting for the brass or for ideals. When gunfire erupts from the hill above them, everyone wants to hide. But they keep on, not because of conscious decision, but because of friendship. In five seconds on Matterhorn, one-third of the remaining 34 in the platoon goes down. Some of the wounded crawl for cover. "Others, unable to move, watched the sky in numb terror or simply shut their eyes, praying for a friend to reach them and drag them to safety. Their friends came."
The Marines in Matterhorn
are kids. Mellas is 21, Cassidy, the redneck veteran gunnery sergeant, is in his 20s, Jancowitz is 19. Janc is in love with a Bangkok bar girl; Parker is a black revolutionary; Pollini's an inept screw-up; Lt. Hawke is a revered leader and, at 22, a combat veteran. Lt. Goodwin is a natural combat leader; Lt. Kendall can't read a map; Cortell, a farmboy from Four Corners, Miss, is called Reverend for his faith; Cpl. Fisher has a very unfortunate run-in with a leech; Arran, the dog-handler, re-ups to stay with his dog, Pat; Jackson, a brother with a portable 45-rpm record player, tutors Mellas on race. "All of them were too thin, too young, and too exhausted." But these kids make decisions, play God, choose the next men to walk point--possibly the next men to die.
When Parker, in convulsions with a high fever, is placed in a stream to cool off, Cortell baptizes him as he lies dying. "Mellas filled a hand with water for a drink. But he just looked at it and let the water drain from between his fingers. Then he covered his eyes with his palm, his wet fingers against his forehead, to hide his tears." Another baptism, with more to come, as Mellas faces fear, deprivation and insanity. His journey to compassion is short but intense. He makes decisions about life, combat and friends, and how to live what may be his very short life. Power and prestige become empty, and their pursuit endless. "Meaning came out of living. Meaning could only come from his choices and actions." He runs up Matterhorn, "as he'd never run before, with neither hope nor despair. He ran because the world was divided into opposites and his side had already been chosen for him, his only choice being whether or not to play his part with heart and courage."
From the constant vibration of fear to the racial tensions of the time, from the consequences of pride and ambition to the rewards of sacrifice and love, Karl Marlantes has written a novel that is vivid, thrilling and authentic. He has told the eternal story of an insane war: "People who didn't even know each other were going to kill each other over a hill none of them cared about." He has made plain the "mad monkey" inside combat veterans, Lemon and Coke, Loud and Clear. --Marilyn Dahl