This book is not for the faint of heart. While I’ve enjoyed other novels about WWII (like The Things They Carried or Battle Cry), the civil war, etc, which felt authentic and were sobering reads, Karl Marlantes’ depiction of Vietnam in Matterhorn is in a league of it’s own. While Matterhorn is fiction, Marlantes was a highly decorated Marine in Vietnam (after attending Yale and Oxford University). When you read the list of awards/medals Marlantes’ received from serving in Vietnam, after having read about what the fictional Marines in Matterhorn did to earn these same awards, it becomes clear that the novel was closely drawn from his experiences in battle.
Matterhorn details a battle around a jungle hilltop nicknamed Matterhorn, focusing on a young Marine lieutenant, Waino Mellas, and the other members of Bravo Company. The men (though many are still teenagers) are dropped into the jungle and must “hump” aka trek through the mountainous jungle from point A to B to C, etc, with little or no food, water, medicine or reinforcements of any kind, or cover in the changing mountain climate. They hope they’re reading their topographical maps right, that their radio batteries don’t die, and that they survive each battle, illness and even tiger attacks, all while hoping that the Lieutenant Colonels overseeing their efforts from headquarters are aware of what’s actually going on in the jungle.
Marlantes describes the Marine’s movements in such a way that you can actually picture the thirsty Marines licking their ponchos with the hope of finding water from morning dew or burying their face in the dirt while trying to summon the courage to get up and run to the next point in the midst of gun fire. Marlantes’ writing was so real that I was actually nervous for the Marines while reading parts of the book.
Throughout the book the acts of war were ghastly enough, but to also see how the politics of the war, the racial tensions and the ever present feelings of shame and honor the men battle also affect their efforts to survive, is astonishing. An article printed in the back of the book by Anthony Loyd (published in The Times (London) and not available without a subscription) indicates that there’s much truth in the novel and also details the author’s struggles both during and after the war.
I absolutely recommend Matterhorn–I would have read it all in one sitting if I had the time. It’s one of the few books I’ve read that brought tears to my eyes. A 10!