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04.08.10

The Last Vietnam War Epic

For years Karl Marlantes struggled with his novel, Matterhorn, based on his experiences during Vietnam, and now it’s out to critical acclaim. John Douglas Marshall speaks to him about overcoming PTSD and the war.

Some writers dream of fame, some of fortune, but Karl Marlantes’ dream was more modest—seeing his book someday on a library shelf. Many years passed without that and Marlantes focused instead on finding someone even willing to read his Vietnam War novel. An agent would be great, or an editor, or a writer he respected, anyone willing to read 1,200 pages by an unknown writer who began his book way back in 1975.

Marlantes kept revising the manuscript, adding this, subtracting that, still hoping for a sympathetic reader, too. The former Marine Corps officer knew something about grit and determination, as he repeatedly demonstrated when leading men in combat in Vietnam. His efforts there yielded two of the service’s highest honors, the Navy Cross for “extreme gallantry and risk of life” and the Bronze Star. The aspiring novelist even retained faith in his writing on rare occasions when someone would read his manuscript and reject it. His education at Yale and Rhodes scholarship at Oxford University convinced him he could write.

Marlantes retains fervent hopes that his novel will help undermine the “scapegoating” that persists to this day among those in his generation who served in Vietnam and those who did not.

Marlantes emphasizes, “If you don’t think you’ve got the talent, it would be insane to try to make a living as a writer because of what that involves. You have to believe you’ve got talent, and I did. I just needed somebody to read my novel and recognize that talent.”

Recognition is showering down now on Marlantes and Matterhorn, his 592-page debut. The bad luck of decades past has been replaced by a long-shot fairy tale of publishing kismet. Matterhorn bears the joint imprints of a Berkeley, California, nonprofit press (El Leon Literary Arts), who first agreed to publish it, and a respected independent in New York (Atlantic Monthly Press), where publisher Morgan Entrekin was so enthused that he paid to co-publish and provide a huge boost with 75,000 copies now in print.

Early praise for the book has been extraordinary and enthusiastic reviews, including a rave in The New York Times Book Review by Sebastian Junger, have made it a bestseller. Marlantes will soon depart on a book tour that will cross the country and last into June. The sudden unreality of it all, after decades of disappointments, is setting in for the 65-year-old resident of a rural area outside Seattle. “It does seem dreamlike,” he concedes.

Matterhorn deserves the burgeoning attention and wide readership. What may be one of the longest and late-est novels of the Vietnam War is also one of the finest. Marlantes provides a grunt's eye view of that controversial lost war, the everyday realities of harsh weather, challenging terrain, jungle diseases, stealthy opponents, body count attrition tactics, racial divides, micro-managing commanders in cushy base camps, and a hostile populace back home.

book-cover---matterhorn
Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War. By Karl Marlantes. 592 pages. Atlantic Monthly Press. $24.95. ()

Marlantes, soft-spoken and earnest, recounts a turning-point moment after he returned from Vietnam. He was assigned to Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. and was delivering papers to the White House in 1970 when he encountered an angry crowd of protesters across the street, waving Viet Cong and North Vietnamese flags, enemy emblems that only months before would have prompted him to open fire. Marlantes also reflected then that most protesters were ignorant about the perils their contemporaries were enduring in Vietnam. That thought remained with him for years and fuelled his determination to show what it was like on “the other side.” Marlantes retains fervent hopes that his novel will help undermine the “scapegoating” that persists to this day among those in his generation who served in Vietnam and those who did not.

Matterhorn details the pilgrim’s progress of Lt. Waino Mellas, a Marine who arrives at his platoon as green as the surrounding jungle. It is 1969 and his unit undertakes three tough operations near South Vietnam’s border with North Vietnam and Laos. They build Fire Base Matterhorn (named for the Swiss mountain) and then abandon it, causing much consternation; they sweep through the jungle on a dreary and tense trek that includes eight days without food or water; they return to recapture Matterhorn, engaging in a fierce battle with North Vietnamese army forces at that nightmarish citadel.

All this action happens in just two months. Marlantes’ understated prose captures these Marines’ corner of hell with visceral immediacy and chilling details. Lt. Mellas’ first crisis in the field is figuring out what to do when one of his Marines has a leech invade his penis and threaten his life. Other intense moments follow, including a Marine on a listening post who is killed by a tiger, another who succumbs to cerebral malaria, plus a leader killed by his own men with a grenade at base camp, a tragic result of growing tensions between white and black Marines.

The climactic assault on Matterhorn depicts the chaos, randomness, exhilaration, and tragedies of combat. It also captures the warrior mind-set with Mellas on the attack: “He ran as he’d never run before, with neither hope nor despair. He ran because the world was divided into opposites and his side had already been chosen for him, his only choice being whether or not to play his part with heart and courage. . ..”

A similar assault at a place called Hill 484 earned the Navy Cross for Marlantes, whose quest for “authenticity” with Matterhorn led him to provide little information on characters’ lives before the Corps because that is how it was for Marines in the field. As Marlantes explains, “You didn’t want to get too close to guys and then have them die.” “Authenticity” also led Marlantes to base the novel’s narrative on actions he experienced in Vietnam or heard about in other units. Mellas may be “way more political” than his creator but they do share small hometowns on the Oregon coast and an Ivy League education (Marlantes’ Yale becomes Princeton for Mellas). And when the lieutenant in Matterhorn suffers a threatening shrapnel wound in his eye and must be evacuated to a medical ship at sea, that near-miss happened to Marlantes, resulting in one of his two Purple Hearts.

Marlantes seemed to have escaped the deeper psychic wounds of Vietnam that bedeviled so many combat vets. He was a globe-trotting consultant, a husband and father whose lucrative career allowed him to work regularly on his novel over nights and weekends, although a demanding job as an executive in Singapore kept him away from the manuscript for three years. He decided to resign that job in 1989 after he walked into a board meeting and saw dead bodies piled atop the conference table, dead bodies looking as real as they were in Vietnam, even though he knew they could not be there.

That was a significant indication that Marlantes was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, although it was years before that diagnosis. His PTSD is now controlled with medication and weekly counseling sessions, although he says there are still times when he “gets jumpy” or cannot sleep and will stroll supermarket aisles at 2 a.m., such a common occurrence with PTSD that one vets’ group that included Marlantes referred to itself as “The 2 A.M. Shopping Club.”

Matterhorn is an unlikely publishing triumph, plus a soaring testament to a writer’s persistence over decades with scant success. But its dedication suggests tough times for the author and his family. Marlantes’ first words in Matterhorn are: “This novel is dedicated to my children, who grew up with the good and bad of having a Marine combat veteran as a father.”

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John Douglas Marshall is a critic for The Daily Beast. He was the longtime book critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it ceased publication in March 2009.