Friday, July 16, 2010

Karl Marlantes' Vietnam

I've been lying awake for an hour now thinking about all that I want to say about this extraordinary novel Matterhorn. For anyone who may be considering writing a novel, the story of this one's genesis and publication is worthy of a novel itself. For over thirty years this Vietnam veteran, father, husband, and businessman has used his spare time - one wonders how he found any - to put together a forbiddingly lengthy 1600 page manuscript. Kudos to his publishers for paring it down to the very accessible, amazingly readable 600 pages that I'm more than halfway through now.

Perhaps because I'm of the Vietnam "conflict" generation I've tended to avoid reading too many novels, or non-fiction for that matter, about it. I've always been drawn to World War II literature because my dad was, though he'd hate the appellation, a war hero, and I believe it was the last war our country has been involved in that could, in my mind, be justified.

One of the great sadnesses of the anti-war movement of the '60's was the misunderstanding between the motives of the demonstrators - and I was one - and the young men forced to participate in the war itself. One can hate the action but not the person who had to do it. Friends and I were talking last night about the draft; how one had to register but then how and when the lottery went into effect. I recall as if it was yesterday, sitting around the tv in Wool House at Russell Sage College in Troy, NY, watching the wire mesh tub full of numbers turn as young men's lives hung in the balance. We worried for lovers, friends and, in my case, my "baby" brother, two years younger.

One of the most outstanding things I've noticed about Marlantes' book is that he takes a very Jack Webb type  approach to the war - not making judgements or preaching or, as some debut novelists might, speak through the main character, Lt. Mellas. Marlantes puts the facts out there for readers to absorb and allows us to reach out own conclusions about the morality, horror, or foolishness of war.

This novel is so raw, so honest in its depiction of what motivated these young men, those who chose to go to Southeast Asia and those who had no choice. After only a page or two I felt as if I'd been dropped from a Huey into a soggy jungle and basically told to fend for myself. There can be no kind of training in the world that can fully prepare one for a change of this magnitude. You can feel the dampness at your very core, smell the stench of jungle rot and the tension and fear that rises from the backs of these kids as they hack their way blind through the dense forests of bamboo and elephant grass.

Marlantes does an excellent job of addressing the rising tensions between the black soldiers and their white counterparts. The Black Power movement was heating up at home, African Americans realizing that they were being sent to Vietnam in inordinately high numbers to fight for a freedom they had yet to accomplish in the states, began to organize and separate themselves voluntarily from their cohorts. The prejudice they endured was real and frankly, beyond belief, in a military establishment that had supposedly been integrated during or after World War II.

Another situation the author acutely observes is the political machinations, the dishonesty, or maybe I should say, carelessness, with which some of the officers toyed with their troops. Depending upon how badly a captain or a major wanted to move up and be decorated, he could turn a blind eye to the suffering of his subordinates. One gets the feeling that an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality ensued. Though their gut feelings may have gnawed at them, they were conveniently able to forget or disbelieve that some units were stuck out in the jungle without food, a change of clothes, medical supplies or ground support for weeks at a time.

I realize that this post is getting too long but I can't recommend this book highly enough. I'm pleased to say that it is on a wait list at our library but anyone who wants to borrow my ARC is welcome to it. If more people would read novels like this, and I hope there will be some outstanding novels to come out of our current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan too, maybe, one day, the voters and readers in our country will prevail and fulfill Congressman Kucinich's desire to replace our Department of War with a Department of Peace.


Kyle said...

Hey Sally. Loved your blog. Come join the official Matterhorn facebook page. They're a ton of great articles and it'll show his author tour in the fall!

Sallyb said...

Thank you, I'm going there right now! This book has just blown me out of the water.