Saturday, June 12, 2010

More War: Matterhorn

I'm not quite sure what has happened , but now I have undeniably taken a detour into the fiction of war. It has been a startling, exciting period of reading. The titles I've read -- The Naked and the Dead, The Kindly Ones, and now Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn -- make a good list of epic, monumental war novels.

Each of these three novels has an interesting back story. Marlantes, a Marine veteran of Vietnam, apparently worked on and off on his novel for three decades plus. He tried to find a publisher at various times (e.g., 1977), but the book has only been published now, first by a non-profit, and then picked up by Atlantic Monthly Press (i.e., Morgan Entrekin). It received a glowing review by Sebastian Junger on the front page of the New York Times Book Review.

Matterhorn may not live up to its very highest praise, but it is pretty damn good. Fundamentally, the book offers a grueling, hyper-vivid account of combat and patrols in Vietnam. Marlantes is detailed in his descriptions of tactics and weaponry (and he includes a lengthy glossary and weapons list). Some readers may find the detail exhausting, but I found it interesting and a necessary part of the fiction. The long description of one brutal march (without resupply or medevac) echoes, I think, the exhausting march in The Naked and the Dead. Like Mailer -- though to a lesser extent -- Marlantes also wants to capture the social and economic diversity of the soldiers (and race plays a central role in Matterhorn as well).

This novel's shortcomings are few and excusable. In attempting to depict a wide swath of characters, some inevitably blur. In a small note on the copyright page, Marlantes writes, "Novels need villains and heroes..." In fulfilling this requirement -- and the requirement for a plot beyond the grind of war -- Marlantes lets the fictional mechanisms of his book creep in. But the occasional intrusion of the fictive also underscores how real and lived the novel feels.

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