Karl Marlantes: Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
When I started reading books and interviewing authors for Writerscast, I made a commitment to only interviewing writers whose books I liked. In the year since, I’ve started quite a few I could not finish, but have read and liked a good fifty books of all different kinds. Several of them kept me up well past my already late bedtime, which is always a great feeling, even if it does make me tired.
I have to say that Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, at 590 pages, kept me up later and longer than any book I have read in the past year. It’s just impossible to put down. Karl Marlantes takes you right into the psyche of a young, smart, scared Marine lieutenant, landing in ‘Nam for his first tour of duty early in the war, and keeps you with him and the soldiers he fights and dies with all the way through to the end of the book. There’s no doubt that the war in Vietnam was an unforgettable, painful, and highly charged experience for the men and women who were there.
Most of us who are old enough either to have been there, or to have lived through the war at home, have had difficulty finding a voice for what happened, and there has been precious little fiction to come out of that period in America’s history that has resonated as great art. I believe this book qualifies as such a thing. Marlantes has captured so much of what America was in the mid-to-late sixties, it becomes possible to inhabit that world, and most importantly, to understand it. Fiction transforms experience into transcendent understanding; a greater truth emerges. Through the terrible grind of war, the intensity of combat, individual heroism and pain, Marlantes has created a great work of art that celebrates the human spirit, a brilliantly glowing prism of suffering and soul.
Karl Marlantes went to Yale, was a Rhodes Scholar, and like his main character, was a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam where he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals. He wrote Matterhorn over a long period of time – 35 years at least – in many drafts and many forms. At various times, he attempted to have the novel published commercially, but it was never “the right time” for any publisher, until the tiny El Leon Literary Arts agreed to publish earlier this year. When they submitted the novel to Barnes & Noble’s Discover New Authors series, and the book was read by that company’s fiction buyer, Sessalee Hensley, who knew that this book would need a larger publisher to help bring it to the large audience it deserves.
Morgan Entrekin (whom I interviewed for Publishing Talks a few weeks ago and who told me about this book when I talked to him) brilliantly chose to put the full resources of Grove/Atlantic behind this book, and I believe it will end up being recognized as one of the great war novels America has produced. In our conversation, Karl Marlantes tells the story of his life and how this book came to be written, what it took to write it, and what it means for him now that it has been published. He is a terrific writer, and one who well deserves the accolades he and his novel are receiving now.