Matterhorn is a gem: well-polished but full of grit. Here’s my piece on Marlantes, originally published in the Post on April 22, 2010.
By Brad Frenette
The tale of the Greek king Sisyphus — doomed to spend eternity rolling a boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down — could serve as a metaphor for what soldiers experienced during the Vietnam War. The unfamiliar jungles and terrain made even the most basic tasks extremely difficult, while the knowledge of wide protests back in the United States made the effort seem entirely futile.
For Karl Marlantes, a highly decorated Vietnam vet, that war is best symbolized by Matterhorn, a hill that he invented for his debut novel of the same name. A battle-scarred rise near the Demilitarized Zone, it’s surrounded by thick jungle, and whichever side takes Matterhorn wins a strategic advantage. It is taken by Bravo Company, abandoned, then occupied by the enemy.
When Bravo Company is ordered to fight and if necessary die to retake the hill, the sigh of Sisyphus is loud.
For the 65-year-old Vietnam vet, Matterhorn is the perfect metaphor. “[The hill] is the Vietnam War,” says Marlantes on the phone from a book-tour stop in Portland, Ore. “We built this thing, abandoned it, assaulted it. Killed a bunch of people and left. It’s the symbol of the whole war. I mean — what’s this all about?”
The novel, the first draft of which Marlantes completed three decades ago, has become a New York Times best-seller. Praised for its realism, more reminiscent of the war literature of James Jones, Norman Mailer and Ernest Hemingway than the hallucinatory, surreal tone that often coats Vietnam War fiction,Matterhorn deals in the dramas of everyday life — a leech crawling into a penis, a tiger dragging a member of Bravo Company into the jungle — and big themes such as loyalty, leadership and racism.
“War is mostly drudgery,” Marlantes says. “Spreading wire and picking scabs and dumb shit like that. How do I write a novel that makes the reader really understand that about war and not bore the hell out of them?”
Marlantes’ protagonist is Waino Mellas, an Ivy League-educated second lieutenant. Parallels will be made with the author, an Ivy League-educated Rhodes Scholar who himself was a combat Marine and officer in Vietnam. Marlantes insists the similarities end there.
“If you are a second lieutenant in the Marines and get dropped into the jungle, you are going to experience virtually the same thing as any other second lieutenant who’s dropped into the jungle. You’re going to be terrified, not sure of what you are doing. Those things are things I’ve experienced, therefore my character experienced those things. Now, if I was half as smart politically as Mellas, I’d be a lot richer and more powerful than I turned out. I was the one sitting back, wondering about how God views all of our endeavours.”
The characters of Matterhorn’s Bravo Company are deep, and well drawn. There is a soldier named Vancouver, a Canadian from British Columbia who volunteers to fight in America’s war. He is a vivid character, drawn from a real-life combatant, a 6-foot-3 hulk from Osoyoos, B.C., named George Jmaeff.
“He was an unbelievable warrior, says Marlantes. “There are at least three guys that wear his name on a silver bracelet around their wrists because he saved their lives and lost his own doing it; an archetype, he carried a sawed-off M-60 machine gun that he modified. That’s a crew-served weapon [a gun normally run by two soldiers] but he carried it by himself, with the ammo.”
Marlantes also deals head-on with the racial tensions within the troops. “It’s hard for people to imagine how racist it was in the ’60s,” he says. “The hard work of integration took place in the U.S. military. That’s where blacks and whites learned to respect each other, learned to work together. And it was not easy. We’d be out in the bush, looking out for everybody’s backside. And everybody would be green. Then, we’d get back to the rear and everyone would split up — black and white. Just fear. It was there, and scary. The military got through that.”
The story of how Matterhorn ascended the best-seller list is also a tale of tenacity.
After writing an 1,800-page story after the war, a process Marlantes calls “‘great psychotherapy,” he began a second work, an 800-page novel called Matterhorn, completed in 1977.
“No one would read it,” he says bluntly of his immediate attempts to find a publisher.
The manuscript continued to roll across the desks of publishers for the next three decades. In the 1970s, Marlantes was told that “no one wants to read about the Vietnam War.” In the 1980s, he was told that “Hollywood’s done Vietnam.” And all the while — on weekends, during breaks from his career as an international energy consultant — he kept tinkering and refining. In recent years, he was even advised to “take that mountain you’re talking about and move it to Afghanistan.”
However, unlike Sisyphus, Marlantes got a break. A friend suggested he send the manuscript to a friend of a friend, Kit Duane, the senior editor of El Leon Literary Arts, a small not-for-profit press based in Berkeley, California.
Marlantes wasn’t optimistic. “It was going to cost me $50 to copy the monster at Kinkos and [they] wanted me to send a book about Vietnam to a woman in Berkeley? This is going to be the stupidest decision I ever made.”
To his delight, Duane “loved it,” he says. “If it wasn’t for her, we wouldn’t be talking.”
Thomas Farber, publisher of El Leon, says Matterhorn fit the press’s mandate perfectly, even though “we were daunted by its length. By then, we had published 13 books, so we felt we could do it. Our mission has been to publish books of high quality that might otherwise not see print in the commercial marketplace. In some ways, one might say Matterhorn is what we set out to be able to do.”
El Leon reduced the length to just under 700 pages and this January published 1,200 copies. But the struggle to get it into the hands of readers had just begun. Marlantes’ wife suggested he enter the book “in every contest you can think of,” and so he and El Leon did just that.
One of the contests was Barnes and Noble’s Discover Great New Writers initiative, and the book found its way to Sessalee Hensley, the chief buyer. Hensley was aware that El Leon wouldn’t be able to keep up with the demand, were the U.S. book giant to get behind the novel, so in a rare move, she approached the large New York-based publisher Grove/Atlantic, which agreed to co-publish the book.
“I was amazed by two things,” says Grove/Atlantic publisher Morgan Entrekin. “One, the talent, the quality of the book — that somebody could work in isolation on a piece of fiction for that long and come up with something this good. And the second thing I was most impressed by was his perseverance, that someone would stay at it that long. And fortunately the book gods are smiling on it.”
Grove/Atlantic once again reduced the length and last month the book saw a second printing of more than 100,000 copies.
Today, Matterhorn — 33 years in the making — is a bona fide publishing phenomenon and Marlantes is writing full-time. When he has finished his promotional tour, he will settle down to his second novel, which is not about Vietnam (“I’m through with it” says Marlantes).
Is he nervous about the follow-up, given that the first book took more than three decades to reach the bookshelves? Marlantes laughs. “If you don’t challenge yourself, how will you make headway? And believe me, if there’s anybody who’s got sophomore fear …”
The next hill will surely be an easier climb. As Marlantes points out, he’s not about to “wait until I’m 95 for the next one.”