CV Rick's Reviews > Matterhorn

Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes
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's review
Jul 30, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: historical-fiction, mainstream
Read from July 26 to 29, 2011

Yesterday, I finished Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. It's a novel of the Vietnam War. It's a gritty, in the shit, brutal story of misery and futility. It's everything that was wrong with the Vietnam War and everything that's right with combat marines.

Marlantes was there as a combat Marine officer: a lieutenant of a rifle company. He knew the horror that his troops underwent day after day after day. In fact, this book feels more like a diary than a novel. And that's perhaps my biggest gripe with the entire thing. Even though the scenes are compelling and the characters are real, and even though their motivations are understandable. And even if every thing that he writes about is something that he experienced, it's still not a complete story. A story requires a plot and in the greater sense the Vietnam War had no plot; it had no purpose.

What I think happened is that the author wrote a tale that he lived through, embellishing small things, combining characters, and then he realized that he couldn't publish it as nonfiction without getting into all sorts of trouble. Memoirs are notorious for being targets of investigative journalists. I'm sure the author didn't want to undergo that kind of scrutiny. He probably also didn't want the arguments from other content Marines and soldiers who had lived through the same things that he lived through because everyone's experience in war is different. And, since he combined people, events, and embellished, he didn't want to have to explain his decisions to the marines about whom he was writing. So he wrote a story, called it a novel, and published it to great acclaim. In the process he forgot that novels need to have stories.

Now not saying it's not a great read it, certainly it is. It's about the futility that exists when Marines are required to do things that make no sense at all for people who were just promoting their own political agendas and it is frustrating and it needs to be told. For that reason I highly recommend this book. I recommend it for its honesty. I recommend it for anyone that wants to know what it was like for these guys that America sent to a foreign land to fight in a war that made no sense at all. But when I hold this book up against other great war novels it just doesn't pass the muster and I feel bad for that.

Remember the blockbuster movie Titanic? It had such great visual imagery of that ship on the bottom of the ocean and then the filmmakers went and destroyed the imagery with a bad story. That's how I feel about this novel it has such great imagery. It has the texture and feel that you want in a gritty war novel. It has what you want when you're telling a story that needs to be told about men who can't tell for themselves because their dead, forgotten, abandoned. It has everything that I want in a book about that stupid war. The but at the end of the day it's just not a novel.
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