September Review: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

Karl Marlantes’ Vietnam novel Matterhorn is one of the finest first-hand portrayals of war ever penned. A Vietnam vet himself and a Rhodes scholar, Marlantes spent over thirty years unsuccessfully pitching his novel to agents and publishers. During which time, he continued to revise and reshape the text with the added wisdom of years. In the end, he managed to produce a true masterpiece of storytelling.

 Matterhorn follows a company of marines over a three-month period of war at its most hellish.  In its six hundred plus pages, Marlantes portrays war as a crucible in which the mettle of men is tested and revealed without an ounce of sentimentality or romanticism. As an anti-war yet pro-soldier (the attitude that dominates the thinking of many modern Americans) story, Matterhorn compellingly reveals the sheer terror of combat and the love forged among soldiers at war.  The novel also serves as a repository of the history of the 1960’s, especially as it reveals the fault lines that existed between black and white Americans. My favorite aspect, however, is how Marlantes reminds the reader of the sadly never-changing fact that it is the old who start wars, but it is the young who fight and die in them – often for geopolitical and economic causes beyond their understanding.

 In light of America’s continued sinking into the quagmire of the war in Afghanistan, Matterhorn rings too true to current events. As I finished the novel, I was inspired to Google a list of soldiers killed in recent weeks in that war and couldn’t help but bemoan how little we have learned. With scenes from the novel of soldiers’ bodies torn apart by mines and grenades and bombs and bullets still haunting my consciousness, the tragic deaths of these modern heroes felt that much more immediate and poignant.

Why I Write

I often read in interviews with authors the claim that they write because they’ve always written, and they would write regardless of whether or not they were even being published. I’ve also read from authors who claim that they write because it’s the only way they can get the voices of their characters out of their head. True as these statements may be, I find them both to be rather dramatic, a bit pretentious, and even disingenuous.

 As for me, I’ve only been writing seriously for five years, and if there were no prospect of selling the rights to my novels to publishers willing to pay me for my work and to make a great effort to market and sell said novels, I don’t believe I’d ever write another. Shallow or not, if I am to continue pursuing a career as a writer and to devote the necessary amount of time and energy that the endeavor demands, I need the validation that only publication can provide, but I do not need to write and sell books to gratify my ego or sense of self-worth. If the day comes that there is no interest in the style of writing I do, I will walk away with no regrets. I have no characters trapped inside my head in danger of eternal incarceration, and I have plenty of other things to do.

 I began writing as a challenge to myself, to prove that not only could I teach but that I could do. As I await the publication of my debut novel in February and continue to work on the second novel in my two-book contract, I am confident that should I fail to establish a substantial audience and the demand for a third novel not materialize, I’m perfectly okay with that. I’ve proven that I could compose a story worthy of occupying a bookstore shelf. Everything from here is gravy. For me, writing is just one thing I do; there are many others from which I derive great pleasure and self-worth and still many other pursuits I’ve yet to try that unchaining myself from my laptop would make possible. Although I certainly draw no comparison in our literary talents, in some ways, I believe that Harper Lee had the perfect literary career: one and done.

 I’m a writer because I choose to be one, but it’s a demanding lifestyle that drains every other aspect of my life. I will continue to evaluate the cost/reward of those demands and the validity of the reasons for why I write.