By now, most Vietnam war narratives have become the worst kind of cliché, one that trivializes real life by turning it into a series of familiar beats. The main character is always a wet-behind-the-ears, college-educated guy eager to prove himself. There’s always a gruff-but-loveable veteran around to show him the ropes and keep him from getting killed. There’s the angry black man, the guy who can’t stop thinking about the girl he left behind, the good-natured schmuck whose clumsiness could get someone killed. And of course, there are the ambitious but clueless officers, ordering their men on suicide missions to further their careers and generate good publicity back home. Battles are fought, lessons are learned, people die, and somebody smokes pot. Rinse and repeat.
Matterhorn, the first novel by Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes, hits all these points, but thankfully, Marlantes hits them so well, and with such compassion for nearly all parties involved, that the familiarity ceases to be an issue after the first 30 pages. The book is largely plotless, focusing on second lieutenant Mellas, newly assigned to Bravo Company in South Vietnam. Mellas is looking to trade combat experience for political points, and he’s scared out of his mind. He gets to know the men he serves with, struggles with racial conflicts, starves, bleeds, and shoots strangers in the face, while the men under and above him suffer and die for honor and whatever sense of purpose they can maintain.
The cast is huge, and while the characters are winnowed down over time, some names blur together. Marlantes packs his book with technical details, from the Kool-Aid packets the grunts use to cover the chemical taste of their drinking water to the logistics of arranging air support in the middle of the jungle, and the jargon can be intimidating. But it’s combined with such strong pacing and momentum that the glossary at the novel’s end seems hardly necessary; who wants to stop long enough to check what “poag” actually means? Matterhorn isn’t subtle, and some soldiers turn into talking heads when the author wants to get a point across. But it doesn’t matter. This is a generous, terrifying, thrilling, and miserable story of men who deserved better, but gave their all anyway. Flaws and all, it’s impossible to put down.