Friday, May 21, 2010

Matterhorn

The "It" book this Spring, at least in these parts, seems to be Karl Marlantes' debut novel of the Vietnam War, Matterhorn. (Warwick's had him here in April, to great success.) Matterhorn highlights the utter futility, stupidity, and frustration that permeates war in our time. It is the story of a company of Marines, entrenched in the jungle of Vietnam, forced to protect, defend, abandon, attack, and hold a supposedly strategically significant mountain that rises above the treeline just south of the DMZ. These men fight, kill, and often die, at the whim of an alcoholic, glory-seeking Battalion Commander who watches and criticizes from afar. It is raw, yet elegant - powerful, yet humble; a remarkable book that forces a fresh perspective on a sad chapter in American history.

Marlantes himself was an enormously decorated Marine during the war, earning two Purple Hearts, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for Valor, ten air medals, and the distinguished Navy Cross. In 1975, when he had finally come home after his time served, he began writing his novel - 35 years later, we have the honor of being able to read his story. The publishing history of Matterhorn is almost as interesting as the story itself - it is one of an amazing collaborative effort by a tiny independent publisher, a major New York publisher, a giant bookstore chain, and dozens of independent bookshops.

After toiling over his book - which ballooned to over 1,700 manuscript pages at one point - for the better part of three decades, Marlantes finally found a publisher in tiny El León Literary Arts out of Berkeley, CA.  He had no literary agent and was paid in copies of his book, rather than cash - 120 to be exact.  El León printed a modest 1200 copies and Marlantes sent some around to independent stores that he thought might want to carry it. Several booksellers read it and expressed interest in book signings - the Oregonian even ran an article on Marlantes and his story, even before the original publication date. El León also submitted the work to various literary contests with the hope that someone else would notice its merits. They did.

When the Barnes & Noble's Discover Great New Writers program expressed interest - Sessalee Hensley, renowned book buyer for B&N was a big proponent - the concern was whether El León could handle a print run larger than the initial 1200 if picked up by the program. Hensley brought the book to the attention of Morgan Entrekin, president of the widely respected Grove/Atlantic and Entrekin struck a deal with El León to publish and distribute jointly. Grove paid El León for the initial print run, covered all their printing costs, plus a cut of the ensuing profits, and printed Matterhorn under both names - an unprecedented circumstance in the world of publishing. Now, two months after the Grove publication date, Matterhorn has received all kinds of remarkable praise, from virtually ever major review publication out there. It has spent 7 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, it received coveted starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal, it was featured on NPR, in Newsweek, The Onion, the Washington Post - the list goes on. Plenty of people in the Warwick's orbit have read it as well - so many, in fact, that I thought I'd ask some colleagues and friends to give me their impressions on Matterhorn for inclusion in this post, as sort of a collaborative affair - they're included below.

As for me, I was born in 1975 - a month and a half after Saigon fell - so there's always been a bit of a mystique surrounding Vietnam for me, as one brought into life just as so many were exiting theirs. It has been a war that has left its indelible stamp on my generation - even though we were just barely getting started. I haven't read a novel of Vietnam that has brought the stark reality of the war to the forefront quite like this one. What struck me most about Matterhorn - other than the frustration in watching men die as a result of astounding idiocy and political posturing - was that I never found myself thinking of characters as being "killed off" by the author, rather I mourned their deaths as if they were real people. I can't remember ever thinking this while reading fiction before.
Wes Anson:  "For me it was as accurate and as evocative as Band of Brothers must have been for WWII people. Having been in Vietnam during that time (and in that location), I can tell you that every word Marlantes has written and the scenes he describes are absolutely accurate. If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to actually be there, you need to read this book. It deserves every word of praise that it has received."
Photo by Henri Huet, AP
Adrian Newell, Warwick's:  "I loved the book, but found it hard to read because of the subject matter, not the writing - so I read it only in the morning and in small bites. I both loved and hated the way I became so emotionally attached to characters...only to have them die! It was very realistic but tough to handle as the reader becomes very connected to the people. I thought he did an amazing job of describing the tedium of waiting for battle, the psychological impact of war, the camaraderie and brotherhood that develops under the harsh conditions of combat, and the political machinations that are often at cross purposes with what we're fighting for & about. War is ultimately the game of politics taken to the nth degree!"
Will Wainess: "I think Matterhorn did an exceptional job of describing the racial tensions that existed within these companies during the war. My father - in World War II - was in charge of a segregated unit. His officers were white but all of his enlisted men were black. And then you throw all of these (different) people together in this horrendous conflict called Vietnam…I mean, I’d never known that “the brothers” wore hangman’s nooses around their necks, in defiance…throwing it up into the face of the officers on a daily basis. There were no black officers, really. What really jumped out at me was how career-oriented & gung ho for promotion and glory a lot of these white officers were. Some of (their) decisions were clearly stupid, and some of them were very necessary, but (it proves) that there’s no faster way to get promoted than during wartime. These guys were jumping at their chance during this conflict – always thinking of who to lay it off on, how it may come back at them or how it might stand in their favor & get them promoted. It really addressed the pure madness of it all - take the mountain top, abandon the mountaintop, march here by 9:30 in the morning, without food and resupply - not just because the weather (is bad), but 'cause (we're) not gonna reward them for (screwing) up and not taking better care of their soldiers feet and eating their food too fast...it was nuts! I really got the sense of the futility of war as I have in few other books."
Molly McDonald:  "Vietnam is kind of a nightmare to think about, and therefore I’ve not wanted to do so for many years. I began reading Matterhorn thinking I wouldn't last a chapter and found myself not able to put it down. Marlantes takes you there without mercy, not unlike how our troops arrived: young, inexperienced, and aching to understand what the hell was going on in this, not a war, but a military conflict. I was asking myself throughout the book: "Why do we do war?" The answers are in this novel. The characters are stunning, vivid, and wonderful. I learned what goes on between soldiers in combat, but also of larger issues of self, purpose, and the limits of human understanding. The healing quality of this is not to be underestimated - I have not enjoyed a novel so much in quite awhile."
John Hughes, Warwick's:  "What makes a great war novel? For me, the answer has to be a compelling story that not only gives me a realistic portrayal of a war but also gives the reader an experience of the war from inside the minds and hearts of actual soldiers. A great war novel should strike you to the core. Matterhorn is a great war novel about a horrible war. It has earned a place on my bookshelf next to Red Badge of Courage, All Quiet on the Western Front, and The Naked and the Dead."
Ted Chandler:  "Intense, raw, and compelling, Matterhorn accurately portrays, more than any other novel that I've read, 'the horror, the horror' of this brutish, foolish, and disastrous American misadventure. I can say this with conviction because of my own experiences in various 'garden spots,' such as Dong Ha, Quang Tri, and Khe Sanh two years before Mellas' combat tour in I Corps. But that said, Semper Fi Marines!"

1 comment:

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    Thanks,
    Pablo from Argentina

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