I had the distinct honor of hearing Karl Marlantes – author of Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War (2010) – read from his powerful new novel on April 10, 2010 at Village Books.
I have to admit that Matterhorn wasn’t on my radar screen. Chuck Robinson, co-founder and co-owner of Village Books, wrote on the VB website back in April that he was reading a new Vietnam War novel titled Matterhorn and gave a positive recommendation. At that point I knew that I had to read it!
Usually I am unable to read a new book by a particular author before his or her scheduled reading. In this case, I read this fine novel over the course of 3 – 4 nights. I was unable to put it down until 1 or 2 AM each night (morning)! I finished the novel a couple of days before Marlantes’ reading.
I was delighted to chat briefly with Marlantes after his reading. He inscribed my copy of his book “10 APR 10 FOR ANDY – /s/ Karl Marlantes.” My impressions of Marlantes were very favorable: I found him to be modest, very intelligent, and soft spoken. He also has a good sense of humor. I was charmed to meet his wife and chat with her briefly. He told us about working on this novel for over 30 years. That’s quite a story, too!
Matterhorn is arguably the best novel of the Vietnam War. It begins with unforgettable imagery and doesn’t ease up for 566 pages (a “Glossary of Weapons, Technical Terms, Slang, and Jargon” adds an additional 32 pages). The combat scenes are riveting and visceral. Marlantes also writes movingly about race in his fine novel. Most highly recommended.
My personal favorite fictional treatment of the Vietnam War (and one of my most favorite books) is The Things They Carried (1990) by Tim O’Brien. It is a collection of linked short stories. I recommend it if only for O’Brien’s writing. The title short story is some of the finest writing I have ever read. Most highly recommended.
In discussing novels of the Vietnam War (and its aftermath) I must include Stewart O’Nan’s The Names of the Dead (1996), another favorite of mine. O’Nan, born in 1961, brought the Vietnam War and his main character Larry Markham to life for me. He played the year of Markham’s tour in Vietnam against his life “back in the world” in a very fine flashback – present, back and forth narrative. Highly recommended.
I enjoyed Gardens of Stone (1983) by Nicholas Proffitt; even though it is an older novel of the Vietnam War, I just read it for the first time earlier this year. Proffitt tells his story of the war using Delta Company, a company burying American war dead at Arlington National Cemetery. Recommended.
Finally, Going After Cacciato (1978) by Tim O’Brien, is worth a read. For me, Cacciato makes it clear that O’Brien has mined his experience in Vietnam for a number of years. He also wrote a memoir, If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home (1975). If I Die in a Combat Zone – like his The Things They Carried – is an exceptional book Most highly recommended.
Why read novels (or memoirs) about the American experience in Vietnam? It is impossible to understand American history and society of the 1960’s and early 1970’s without some understanding of the Vietnam War and its vast effects. The war has a huge legacy for us.
So, recap: please read The Things They Carried and Matterhorn!
Finally, if you want a recommendation for a good book (and a book which may have escaped your notice), seek out your local bookseller at an independent bookstore. He or she will have some great reads for you!
Andrew Shattuck McBride