4. Matterhorn

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.



3. ‘Salem’s Lot

By Stephen King. 1975.

How would Dracula consume a small town? ‘Salem’s Lot.

Dark lord Stephen King crafts an evil house on a hill for Dracula to move into. Cue blood sacrifices, disappearances, strange deaths, and, eventually, “all around them, the bestiality of the night rises on tenebrous wings. The vampire’s time has come.”

Dracula (he’s called Barlow) lurks while his vampire takeover is witnessed at street level. ‘Salem’s Lot (of course) has a main character, nice guy Ben Mears, and a love interest, a mentor, a kid. There are many secondary players, some with crucial roles, including drunks and eccentrics and the town gossip and a bully and some trailer trash whose baby is so God-damned scary and (of course) the sheriff.

The town itself, Jerusalem’s Lot, is the saddest character of all, invaded and killed from inside. Here’s an example of a master writer turning place into more. One sentence:

But by mid-May, the sun rises out of the morning’s haze with authority and potency, and standing on your top step at seven in the morning with your dinner bucket in your hand, you know that the dew will be melted off the grass by eight and that the dust on the back roads will hang depthless and still in the air for five minutes after a car’s passage; and that by one in the afternoon it will be up to ninety-five on the third floor of the mill and the sweat will roll off your arms like oil and stick your shirt to your back in a widening patch and it may as well be July.

You’re there. Yet King’s greatest gift is not word skills. The greatest gifts are characters, especially villains, and ever-escalating stakes, scenes of bravery and pain that get crazier the deeper you go, way past sanity. King tells big, ambitious good-and-evil stories, spiced with real fear – the scariest scenes in ‘Salem’s Lot are not vampire attacks. They’re moments so expertly realized that they feel like memory, like inception, like it’s happening before your eyes. It’s terrifying, but responding to a story is also fun as hell.


2. Franny and Zooey

By J.D. Salinger. 1961.

Zooey Glass finds, written on “snow-white beaverboard” in his twin brothers’ old room, a series of quotations. One is from the Bhagavad Gita, and says, in part, “You have the right to work, but for the work’s sake only. You have no right to the fruits of work.” Another, by Marcus Aurelius, says, simply, “It loved to happen.”

The first quote is interesting in the context of author J.D. Salinger’s life. Salinger, famously, was a recluse who wrote for hours daily yet rarely published, despite blockbuster success for The Catcher in the Rye. He liked work, and didn’t care for the fruit.

Franny and Zooey is an atypical book, compiling two stories that ran in The New Yorker in the late 1950s. Franny mostly takes place on a date. Franny Glass is out with her insufferable boyfriend. He puffs himself up, oblivious to her intense physical reaction to his hoity-toity Yale bullshit. She’s not eating, can’t focus, excuses herself to go cry in the bathroom. She returns and it worsens, until she cracks.

The question is: Is Franny a brat? She’s rich and brilliant, so might her breakdown be merely obnoxious? To like this book, you probably have to buy this crisis as legit.

Franny is home, in Zooey, with her brother Zooey dispensing advice over many, many pages.

Maybe Salinger didn’t publish more because he wrote so personally. Zooey is family members in rooms together, discussing the meaning of life. Is selflessness the answer? Franny wants to pray so constantly that the prayer becomes unconscious, like a heartbeat. But must she?

Family leads to higher truth. Zooey spends and hour in the bathtub, gently insulting his nagging mother as he not-so-gently demands she get out. Then he goes downstairs to lecture his sister mercilessly. The whole book takes place in about two rooms.

“It loved to happen,” the great Roman king said. Maybe so. Of all the things Salinger wrote, he published Franny and Zooey. He knew he was onto something with this one. It doesn’t have the answer, but it’s earnestly seeking. And it’s short.


1. The Catcher in the Rye

By J.D. Salinger. 1951 

The headaches get intense for Holden Caulfield. He becomes too depressed to concentrate. Friends ask him to calm down, to stop yelling. He’s 16, troubled, a mess of neuroses, and The Catcher in the Rye takes place over a few terrible days of embarrassment, assault, and drunken awkwardness.

Because I watch too many movies, I thought this was creepy as I read. The guy who killed John Lennon was obsessed with Catcher in the Rye, and that bit of extremely interesting trivia casts a dark shadow. Holden narrates the story and outright admits he’s a liar. Superficially he seems not to change, violating an essential rule of storytelling. There’s no conflict; he just totes his bad attitude from encounter to encounter. Were he a lying murderer or rapist, and what we read is actually not what’s happening, that would explain the lack of arc.

But a kid who hates adults is no psychopath. He’s normal, but almost too normal. Dark, complicated psychological moments – like rejection or sexual confusion – are rendered in Salinger’s style that perfectly, almost creepily, matches normal speech (“and all”). There are countless lines like this: I was surrounded by jerks. I’m not kidding. 

Clues to Holden’s issues escape. His brother died. He may have been molested: “perverty… stuff’s happened to me about 20 times since I was a kid.”

When his little sister accuses him of not liking or wanting to be anything, Holden misquotes a poem and says he pictures kids playing in a field of rye, near a cliff. When they get too close to the edge he catches them. “I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be. I know it’s crazy.”

That is not a job.

The transition to adulthood can be dicey. Holden’s been expelled and fears his parents, and New York City kicks his ass. He’s not cared-for.

The pissed-off voice makes this novel famous, but Holden’s arc is true. He does change, on the last page. It could be cheesy and all – I just hate it when they end all cheesy – but it isn’t. It’s perfection.