Thursday, February 1, 2018

LIstened to: "Matterhorn" by Karl Marlantes

Listened to: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, 2009, downloaded from I should point out I always use the Wisconsin Digital Library which contracts with Overdrive. I do not have a separate, commercial account with Overdrive.

One of the best novels I have heard or read in the past several years. Marlantes spent over 30 years working on this book. When I read a tidbit like that I think, "Ugh, this will be a thick, wet dog of a story." Nope, it was pretty damn good.

The narration by Bronson Pinchot was masterful. I'm glad I did not realize Pinchot was reading this because I might have skipped the novel. I really hated Pinchot's TV show Perfect Strangers - talk about a wet dog - but Pinchot was excellent.

The novel focuses on Second Lieutenant Mellas on his first assignment in Vietnam near the DMZ and right by Laos. Mellas joined the Marine Reserves to pay for college and, after a few years, ended up an Officer. He's being sent out as a freshly starched Infantry officer with a Battalion that has already participated in some dangerous operations.

Other characters get the 1st person treatment and we meet other officers, noncoms, and everyone else. I was absorbed into the group. Marlantes walk you through Mellas's introduction to the unit and adjusting to life as a no nothing 2nd Lt. There is nothing new here as far as Vietnam War fiction. There is a fairly standard list of things the characters endure:
Draftees vs. Lifers
Race relations
Ringworm from waist to ankles.
Jungle rot.
Immersion foot.
Biting ants.
Falls down rock faces.
Falls off cliffs.
Sprayed by Agent Orange, "Don't worry, it's okay, it's safe for people."
Fighting among Marines and Soldiers who are fed up and exhausted kids but are also trained killers.
Heat exhaustion.

But, Marlantes puts life into everything. The drunken Lieutenant Colonel is trying to keep his career on track while knowing he is fucking up. The black Marines are justifiably angry with their treatment by a racist Sergeant. The Lieutenants are trying to keep things running. The company commander knows the Colonel's orders are foolish but he has no choice.

You relearn about how so much of war time military life is deadly even without the enemy. A Marine has a leech crawl up his urethra leaving him in excruciating pain from backed up urine. Crossing swift rivers and climbing rock cliffs with just a couple ropes. Told to hike for days and doing so with out any food or fresh water. Setting a night ambush and having your best friend eaten by a tiger.

The purpose of the infantry is supposed to be straighforward. Everyone works together to kill the enemy and take their land. But, you're stuck with incompetent commanders, commanders concerned with stats to pad their CV, Marines who are unskilled or incompetent, racial trouble between angry black Marines and racist Southern Marines, constant physical labor to develop firebases for artillery and then abandon the bases. So on. So forth.

The book makes you joyful, frustrated, angry, relieved, and crushed.

1. This is the second book that insults Rotary Clubs. Hey, man, I'm in Rotary and it's not a bunch of local know-it-alls sitting around toasting themselves.
2. I'm now looking at a PDF addendum to the audiobook that has maps, a list of principal characters, and a glossary. That would have been handy while I was listening.

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