Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Book Notes: Matterhorn (5/5)

Matterhorn is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read.  I've read many nonfiction books about war over the years, but this is one of the few fiction accounts I've read based on actual events.  Karl Marlantes spent thirty years writing this novel after his own experiences in the Vietnam war.  His writing is thoughtful, emotive, and clear.  The list of characters is long and the military language is unfamiliar to me, but after about 200 pages, I was enveloped into the story.  Marlantes does a brilliant job of covering the minutiae of jungle life in the war of Vietnam while also getting us inside the heads and the internal conflicts of the men who served.

As a novel, the book is fascinating because Marlantes places pages of beautiful prose right next to pages of dialogue that is full of profanity.  It took me about 100 pages to get over the fact that almost every third word in the dialogue between the soldiers is the f-word.  But later I realized that this was not only Marlantes' attempt to show us the way the Marines actually talked to each other, but is a picture of the war itself - vulgarity right next to beauty, valor, and honor.  More than any war account I've ever read, Matterhorn made me feel the conflict from the soldier's perspective - the brutality, the hate and love right next to each other, the boredom and the intensity, and mess of emotions related to the chain of command and the war itself.

In one particularly gripping section, the most "religious" character in the story shares with his friend his own internal struggles with faith in the midst of so much pointless death.  This paragraph moved my heart like few others I've ever read:

Cortell was silent for a moment.  Then he said, "Ever'one here think it easy for me.  I be this good little church boy from Mississippi with my good little church-goin' Mammy, and since I be this stupid country nigger with the big faith, I don't have no troubles.  Well, it just don't work that way."  He paused.  Jermain said nothing.  "I see my friend Williams get ate by a tiger," Cortell continued.  "I see my Broyer get his face ripped off by a mine.  What you think I do all night, sit around thankin' Sweet Jesus?  Raise my palms to sweet heaven and cry hallelujah?  You know what I do?  You know what I do?  I lose my heart."  Cortell's throat suddenly tightened, strangling his words.  "I lose my heart."  He took a deep breath, trying to regain his composure.  He exhaled and went on quietly, back in control.  "I sit there and I don't see hope.  Hope gone."  Cortell was seeing his dead friends.  "The, the sky turn gray again in the east, and you know what I do?  I choose all over to keep believin'.  All along I know Jesus could maybe be just some fairy tale, and I could be just this one big fool.  I choose anyway."  He turned away from his inward images and returned to the blackness of the world around him.  "It ain't no easy thing."

This 4th of July, I'm especially thankful for the men and women who have descended into the depths of hell on earth to ensure the freedom we enjoy, knowing that their service wasn't "no easy thing."

1 comment:

Kyle said...

Hey there Keith. I enjoyed your blog and would like to invite you to join Matterhorn's official online community at It has all the Matterhorn "happenings" including reviews and Karl's author tour dates.

Anyhow, I'm glad you enjoyed the book as much as we did.