Monday, April 26, 2010

Combat in Vietnam Brought Vividly to Life in Matterhorn

Thirty years in the making, Matterhorn, Karl 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. The book follows a smart but nervous young reserve lieutenant, Waino Mellas, as begins his first tour of duty commanding a squad ordered to take out a North Vietnamese machine gun nest. The title of the book refers to a hilltop in South Vietnam near the Demilitarized Zone, but it could also refer to the long, uphill slog the author endured to bring the book to life -- although the author notes that the long wait to publication made the book a better one, as the wisdom of the more mature Marlantes gave him better insight into the younger lieutenant than he had when he first began writing the book.

Jungle rot, leeches dropping from tree branches, malnourishment, drenching monsoons, mudslides, and exposure to Agent Orange all factor into the book's narrative, along with bitterness, rage, disease, alcoholism, racial and cultural tensions, and hubris. Published in a partnership by Atlantic Monthly Press and El Leon Literary Arts, Matterhorn is neither cheery nor brief -- it clocks in at almost 600 pages -- but it is an engrossing, authentic portrayal of combat.

Marlantes, who grew up in Seaside, is a former marine who served in Vietnam and was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts. He is a Yale graduate and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. The father of five, he and his wife currently live in Woodinville, Washington. Writing in Publishers Weekly about why he stuck with this project with so many painful memories through so many years, Marlantes said, "I think it’s because I’ve wanted to reach out to those people on the other side of the chasm who delivered the wound of misunderstanding. I wanted to be understood. Ultimately, the only way we’re ever going to bridge the chasms that divide us is by transcending our limited viewpoints."

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