George Hazard: 'Matterhorn' answers wait for Vietnam novel

July 24, 2010 10:11:00 PM

  -

 

Two groups have been waiting for Matterhorn, subtitled, "a novel of the Vietnam War," by Karl Marlantes. Veterans of that war are much the more important group, waiting to see if a novel could convey the nonsense of that war, its nonsense, given its constraints on their military power and its stress on body counts rather than territorial objectives -- and convey a realistic reckoning with their suffering and loyalty.  

 

Much the less important group are readers of the Vietnam generation like me, waiting for a novel about that war that can be compared to the 19th century''s War and Peace and The Red Badge of Courage, and to the 20th -century novels of Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, James Jones and Herman Wouk. This group has wanted American literature to include a worthy novel of this war of record length and 58,000 American deaths.  

 

Marlantes'' career authorizes him to take on things like courage, loyalty, friendship and the fear that can send a man "quivering into the bottom of his fighting hole, hoping for the mercy of God (414)." As a Marine lieutenant in Vietnam in 1968 and 1969, he earned the Bronze Star, the Navy Cross and two Purple Hearts. Lt. Waino Mellas is Matterhorn''s main character, and at least three of his actions in battle reflect those of the author.  

 

I think Matterhorn does reckon realistically, but only the Vietnam soldiers can say if it ends their wait. I do believe it answers American literature''s wait for the Vietnam novel. Other novels may of course have answered it for other readers, but this book will last.  

 

(The New York Times Book Review says that Massachusetts bookseller Ken Lopez has "listed 3,500 titles in a catalogue of Vietnam literature. No other American conflict, Lopez wrote, ''generated the outpouring of literary effort that Vietnam did.'' ") We want the literature of the nation to include this long, grim part of the nation''s history.  

 

Now the war novelist confronts two big technical problems with battle: its speed and its unfamiliar chaos.  

 

The very act of absorbing words slows the reader''s mind far below the speed of combat, burdens the mind with pictures moving far too slowly. Then, the narrative line is an order: Yet it must break up if it tries to reflect the chaos of war.  

 

Since Homer, writers of war have attacked these problems with metaphors and similes, quick pictures of chaos. Remember Hemingway''s description of warplanes in A Farewell to Arms: "They moved like mechanized doom."  

 

Marlantes mostly succeeds in his figurative pictures. He doesn''t try to reproduce the sounds of the weapons, and he keeps the descriptions short, beginning with the book''s first fighting: "It was as if someone had torn a sheet of solid sound."  

 

And later: "The night turned phosphorescent orange and green, and the roaring sound of the weapons seemed to squeeze everyone''s brain down to the size of a fist."  

 

Taking place in 1969, the novel has about 15 ambushes, firefights and assaults in its 566 pages that show Bravo Company and its new first platoon commander. 2nd Lt. Mellas, take, abandon and re-take Matterhorn, a hill that "had the misfortune of being just a little higher than the others." It took 30 years to write and at one point had 1,600 pages. Much of the tale does not show combat but shows people trying to get along and assess each other in the fiercest interdependency, setting and dread. Still, of the 15 Marines named in a list of Mellas'' platoon, eight die.  

 

As for the remembrance, all of Matterhorn is an elegy commenting upon compulsion and choice and blending the noblest emotions with the fear and cruelty of "ordinary war," as Lt. Mellas labels things near the end.  

 

This story presents the tragedy of war: Death and waste are the results of loyalty and duty. Matterhorn makes us say, "This writer knows human nature, and he can set it down as a testament."  

 

Hazard is a former English teacher and Dispatch city editor.