A writer can make weather a character in a novel the way Edward Hopper casts shadows like roles in his paintings, or the way Daniel Woodrell abandons readers in the cold, as wind rolls unchecked across a gasp of land. Woodrell’s cold, like Hopper’s shadows, is not the kind quickly overcome. It is the lingering kind. The cold that gathers at the tips of your ears and fingers and never quite escapes until the season begins to change.
Karl Marlantes in Matterhorn sends you dripping into the woods, tired and hungry, and thinking of home.
A novel about the Vietnam War, Matterhorn is an unflinching story about the heartache and ever-present death that is war. In the book rain comes and is replaced only by mist. The reader forgets about the wet for a few pages or chapters, only to be snapped back with the shiver of a downpour.
Matterhorn chronicles all the details of war that make the reader feel guilty for an easy night’s sleep and warm bed. It paints scenes unbearable, most often colored in red. In such a lush setting, it is a testament to the author that the reader can be left feeling terrified and thirsty.
Children can see their dream job and dream life like a silver-capped hill in the distance. When you’re young, the green foliage before you and leading up to that hill seems soft and simple. Stateside, war is often looked at in a similar fashion—a means to an accomplishable end.
But in the damp undergrowth that comes before the hill, tigers sleep, actual hungry tigers, bullets rage through the air, and young boys are shocked into manhood. In suspense unlike many other things written, we walk with Marlantes’s characters, tiptoeing, and hoping we see the enemy first.
Matterhorn is brutal yet brilliant and it is in the forged relationships, the fleeting slivers of warmth, that the author shines.
It is not written for anyone who likes his or her war served at 6:30 pm each night in a passing update. Matterhorn is written for those who look at a number like 4,754—American casualties during Operations Iraqi Freedom as of February 10, 2011—and wonder who, how, where, and unfortunately the overarching, why.
In Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes effectively makes weather a lingering character and introduces us cordially to death and pain, all the while highlighting every failing of war.
Unfortunately, he provides no answers to the questions we all ask—no reason for the red spills—but he does write the Vietnam War into a sort of song, a song whose chorus could be Kurtz’s last gasp.
I’m getting great feedback from the veteran community. One example, a guy came up to me at a reading in Seattle and he had five books with him. I asked him why. He told me: “I have tried to tell my wife and four kids what it was like. I served as a Marine in the area the novel covers. And every time I’d try to tell them about the war, I’d start shaking or get nervous and clam up, and I couldn’t go through with it. I’ve been trying for 40 years and now this book will tell it exactly the way it was.”
- Karl Marlantes, interview on HistoryNet.com