The first 400 pages of Karl Marlantes' debut, Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, are taut and exciting.
After an almost pornographically gruesome field surgery scene involving a leech in a urethra, a Marine company is ordered to abandon its hilltop base, the "Matterhorn" of the title. The company marches deep into the jungle, ravaged by tigers, cerebral malaria, malnourishment and benighted upper-level command. They are then instructed to retake Matterhorn—the plot recalls the notorious battle of Hamburger Hill—and in so doing are thrown into a chaotic hail and hell of battle. All along, they volley the barbed, profane, jargon-filled military patois that seems unique to the Vietnam theater of war. "Zilch point shit" is a particularly felicitous example of rating one's chances.
All of it is very entertaining to read, and if the book ended there, it could be consumed quickly and enjoyably, if perhaps a bit guiltily. (Should we be enjoying yet another retelling of the senseless slaughter of a half-million people in Vietnam this much?) But Matterhorn continues for 200 more pages, ultimately casting a dubious light on the entire project.
An acknowledgment should be made: Matterhorn is a book that reflects the writer's earnest need to tell his story. For Marlantes, a highly decorated Vietnam veteran, the publication of his book—which he spent more than three decades writing and revising—may very well exorcise his Vietnam demons. It may do the same for his comrades in arms: Matterhorn almost certainly conveys a shared experience, as reader comments on sites like Amazon confirm. Writing and revising it must have been for Marlantes a task as arduous, painful and steep as Matterhorn itself, and he deserves congratulations for finally landing a publisher; it's an unfashionable book in a post-9/11 world, not least because there is already a prodigious and revered mountain of art about the Vietnam War.
Those last two points, though, are where doubts about Matterhorn arise. Published, yes, but at 600 pages Matterhorn is only about one-third its original length. Marlantes (or his editors) cut around 1,000 pages of the manuscript. This is troubling: If, as Marlantes has said, he was driven by a burning desire to tell his story, why would he agree to shed most of it, presumably at his editors' demand?
More troublingly, the heavy cutting of the text has streamlined the book to something like Vietnam's Greatest Hits. Reading Matterhorn, you'll recognize descriptions, scenes and characters from Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket (which in turn both draw from the book Dispatches, by Michael Herr, who worked on both movies' screenplays), from "The Things They Carried" and Born on the Fourth of July. Matterhorn stays in the well-worn grooves of Vietnam art, a record that is starting to feel played-out—Denis Johnson's National Book Award for Tree of Smoke (2007) and the send-up movie Tropic Thunder (2008) seemed to suggest as much—and the 30-page glossary at the end of Matterhorn acts as a sort of liner notes to the compilation, situating the reader comfortably in the semiotic blur of tin hueys, heat tabs, splibs and chucks, FACs and NVA, etc.
Once the fog of battle and jungle has finally lifted after 400 pages, and Matterhorn takes on a slower gait and a more pensive aspect, we realize that we've been over this terrain before. The clincher comes when Mellas, Marlantes' hero, finally regroups for a literary reference. He quotes T. S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men." That poem's epigraph comes from Heart of Darkness, which Apocalypse Now strip-mined three decades ago.
The Eliot reference comes in the novel's final third, the late stanza when Marlantes has the opportunity to explore new ground by developing Mellas' character and consciousness. But the author is in a double bind here: For one thing, soldiers are reduced, by military design, to subhuman "killing machines," and, as a consequence, have their consciousness gutted out and replaced with a madness of self-contradicting, even self-abnegating thoughts. Thus, in the course of the final 200 pages, Mellas becomes not a character but a confusion—both inestimably brave and unutterably cowardly; finally aware that there are no heroes in the quagmire and revenge is foolish but still compelled to act with great heroism and vengefulness; both terrified of death (whose inevitability "shook him like a terrier shaking a rat") and then giving up on life. He loses himself in the orgy of one battle but in another finds himself, as we all inevitably do, "floating above the scene ... Everything was in slow motion and fuzzily quiet."
And although he understands that "gooks" have just as much right to live as he does, he nonetheless acts on his impulse to annihilate them, which Marlantes then repeats in the book. Not one Vietnamese person has his own name or even a line of dialogue in Matterhorn, a willful omission that reveals, underneath the novel's epic sprawl, a narrow, narcissistic consciousness—and thus the only kind that it can give to its protagonist, via befuddled, ugly and frankly clichéd passages:
It occurred to Mellas that he could create the possibility of good or evil through caring. He could nullify the indifferent world. But in so doing he opened himself up to the pain of watching it get blown away. His killing that day would not have been evil if the dead soldiers hadn't been loved by mothers, sisters, friends, wives. Mellas understood that in destroying the fabric that linked those people, he had participated in evil, but this evil had hurt him as well. He also understood that his participation in evil was a result of being human. Being human was the best he could do.
Even granting that Mellas' mental strength allows him to maintain his humanity in the jungle, it's a dubious compassion. This heat-of-battle metaphor may be meant as feminism, but it's outright misogyny:
The laughter turned him inside out, exposing his most secret parts. He lay before God as a woman opens herself to a man, with legs apart, stomach exposed, arms open. But unlike some women, he did not have the inner strength that allowed them to do such a thing without fear. There was no woman's strength in Mellas at all.
Not surprisingly, when Marlantes explores racial conflict between black and white Marines (this is Marlantes' most notable departure from the usual script), his treatment of it is shallow—his ear for African-American vernacular speech is tellingly poor—and cynically, ruthlessly swept aside in two moments of gratuitous violence just before the end of the book.
One is left, perhaps appropriately, with contradictions: an obviously earnest piece of writing that has been chopped up into pastiche; an author's avowed attempt to tell it like it was that ends up reinforcing a lot of Vietnam mythology; a story of great violence and suffering that is largely fun to read; a critique of one devouring machine—war-making—that winds up feeding another after it is chewed up and spit out as a genre-fiction bestseller. Perhaps it makes a certain sense that, once you've scaled this mountain of a novel, the view from the top is obscured by fog.