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'Matterhorn': A Beautiful, Brutal Vietnam War Epic

Thirty-five years have passed since the fall of Saigon, but the Vietnam War has never really loosened its grip on the American imagination. Even people born years after the war have the painful images burned into their minds — Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the little girl running down the street after being burned in a napalm attack; South Vietnamese police chief Nguyen Ngoc Loan shooting a handcuffed Viet Cong soldier in full sight of a television camera. There's no such thing as a kind or gentle war, but the sheer brutality and hopelessness of Vietnam set the tone for American conversations about war and foreign policy for decades after.

We've all seen, at some point, the Vietnam War dramatized on television or acted out in film. But it's impossible, of course, for anyone who wasn't there to fully gauge the horror and violence that American and Vietnamese soldiers encountered every minute of every day. In his debut novel, Matterhorn, Vietnam combat veteran Karl Marlantes attempts to transport his readers to 1969, in a jungle near Laos, just south of the Vietnamese Demilitarized Zone — DMZ — where a company of young U.S. Marines are fighting for their lives in a war none of them really understands. And while no one who didn't serve in Vietnam can really grasp what life in that time, that place, was like, Marlantes comes closer than any American writer ever has to capturing the unrelenting terror and enormity of one of the saddest chapters in recent world history.

The protagonist of Matterhorn is 2nd Lt. Waino Mellas, a Marine reservist and Ivy League student called to lead a platoon in Bravo Company. Mellas has ambitions of being a lawyer, maybe a politician, and starts his tour frightened, but still hopeful. After a few weeks in country, he starts to realize he's unprepared, still a kid, leading a platoon of even younger kids — scared, confused, most desperate to go home. His education hasn't prepared him for a series of no-win situations — in the midst of one patrol, Mellas realizes "no strategy was perfect. All choices were bad in some way."

He and his fellow soldiers are ordered to build a base on a desolate hill, ordered to abandon it, ordered to take it back from the North Vietnamese. The Marines begin to harbor serious doubts about their commanders, and one another — as racial strife threatens to tear apart the entire battalion, Mellas quickly discovers there's no good solution to anything, and all he can try to do is survive. In one heart-wrenching passage, Mellas considers running away, abandoning his friends, but decides against it: "Dying this way was a better way to die because living this way was a better way to live."

There's never been a Vietnam War novel as stark, powerful and brutal as Matterhorn — Marlantes manages to exceed the efforts of his closest literary antecedents, Tim O'Brien (The Things They Carried) and James Webb (the brilliant, underrated Fields of Fire). He manages to write with a dark and chilling beauty, even as he chronicles some of the most unspeakable events his readers are likely to encounter. It's the rare kind of masterpiece that enriches not just American literature but American history as well. Marlantes earned a host of medals in Vietnam; the service he's done with this brave novel should earn him, again, the thanks of a nation still broken, still trying to heal from the wounds of Vietnam.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Schaub is a writer, book critic and regular contributor to NPR Books. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Portland Mercury and The Austin Chronicle, among other publications. He lives in Austin, Texas.