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Monday, July 26, 2010

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes, 2010, * * *

Intense, powerful, and compelling, Matterhorn is the timeless story of a young Marine lieutenant, Waino Mellas, and his comrades in Bravo Company, who are dropped into the mountain jungle of Vietnam as boys and forced to fight their way into manhood. Standing in their way are not merely the North Vietnamese but also jungle rot, leeches dropping from tree branches, malnourishment, drenching monsoons, mudslides, exposure to Agent Orange, and wild animals. Brigade members not only face punishing combat but grapple with racial tensions, competing ambitions, duplicitous superior officers, bitterness, rage, disease, alcoholism, and hubris. When the company finds itself surrounded and outnumbered by a massive enemy regiment, the Marines are thrust into the raw and all consuming terror of combat and it is visceral. However, while the story is well written and compelling, it feels false in the end, more like a screenplay for Platoon or Full Metal Jacket than a novel that would rank alongside Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead or Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. Marlantes is a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, who clearly understands his playing field (including military jargon that can get lost in translation).  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 but too much happens too quickly, and often with too much foreshadowing.  There is a lot to like in this book but a better editor could have slimmed it down and made it more focused.

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