By Karl Marlantes. 2009.
Between the Trail of Tears op and the fight for Matterhorn comes – for Bravo Company – the calmer eye of this insane shit storm The Vietnam War. Lieutenant Mellas finally gets beer. He chugs one, then another. He’s upset about something deadly serious and runs his mouth and drinks more beer until he’s drunk. Reading the words, I felt almost drunk. The whole book is like that.
The first half is Bravo Company’s brutal hump through murdering jungle. Their hands and feet rot. Leeches, sickness, a fucking tiger all loom for days and nights long after they finish the food and water and start dying.
The second half is mostly battle.
Two favorite books, Slaughterhouse Five and The Things They Carry, subverted the idea that war is heroic. Matterhorn ain’t like that. The fight is thrilling – its horrors culminate in spectacular glory. Heroes are made but also killed, and because we’ve humped the Trail of Tears beside Bravo, the losses hurt.
Stupid pride rears in scenes of superior officers treating starving marines like game pieces, but the salient theme hits in the concluding act. Racial tension, roiling the entire book, explodes. After the jungle and battle, the worst act of all is committed soldier-on-soldier, because of race. Men who should love each other kill each other instead, because of race.
When I read Matterhorn, I think This is the best novel ever. Probably not, but it is thrilling entertainment, better than any war film. You are wet, hungry, dehydrated, and scared, until it worsens. Tight sentences express what happens inside and all around these young men:
His hands were shaking. The blood pounded so hard in his throat that each heartbeat hurt. His thighs felt too weak to keep his knees from folding. His empty insides still churned with the desire to eliminate watery feces. He gave the signal and walked forward into the nakedness of the hillside. The others walked with him, emerging from the trees in a single quavery line.
What happens next is so insane it should be impossible to write truly. Yet there it is.