May 11 2011 12:00 AM

It took Karl Marlantes decades to finish his novel Matterhorn, but the time was well spent


Do we need another Vietnam War novel? Karl Marlantes,
author of “Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War,” has answered that
question with an exclamation point.

Marlantes follows a string of many other notable authors
who have contributed to the genre, including Philip Caputo (“A Rumor of
War”, “Indian Country”), Tim O’Brien (“The Things They Carried”) and
Denis Johnson (“Tree of Smoke”). “Matterhorn” deserves to stand with
these distinguished books written by Vietnam veterans who replaced the
sword with the pen.

Marlantes talked candidly about the war and his
experiences in a recent hour-long phone interview from his home in
Washington State. He is about to undertake a nationwide tour to promote
the paperback release of his New York Times Top 10 Book of the Year.

Marlantes said he has seen some of his public appearances
turn into moments of reconciliation about the unpopular war. He
especially recalls one event in Berkeley, Calif., where he did very
little talking while the audience was “working out their problems.”

Marlantes grew up in the small logging community of
Seaside, Ore. But a National Merit Scholarship took him to Yale where
Marlantes was something of an outlier; as a member of the Marine Corps
Reserve, he was set to go into the Marine Corps in 1967.

When Marlantes was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford
upon graduation in 1967. the Corps gave him a pass to go to England. But
within a few months, Marlantes said, something akin to guilt set in.

“I had already lost five kids from my high school. I
remember the night I made the decision to leave Oxford. A friend and I
wrestled with the same issue. I decided I was going in the Marines, and
my friend sent his draft card in.”

Marlantes book deals with that same issue, but on a much broader scale of what right and what’s wrong with war.

By 1968, he was a Marine second lieutenant in the thick of
the fighting. By 1969, he was going home, a highly decorated Marine
with numerous commendations and medals for his bravery.

The description of the actions for which he won the Navy
Cross reads like his novel. Like many other veterans of the war,
however,  he also brought home the anguish of post-traumatic stress, which haunts him to this day.

At one point, at a business meeting he was leading in Asia, he had a hallucination of dead Marines piled on a conference table. 

“It was so intrusive I had to leave," he said. "I thought it was job stress. No one had ever heard of PTSD.”

He also recalled walking across an intersection with his young daughter when someone blasted a horn.

“The next thing I remember is I’m on his hood, trying to
kick the windshield in. I still have PTSD. The difference today is I
deal with it. Once the brain is rewired by combat it can’t be rewired.”

Post-traumatic stress and a career often put Marlantes’
writing on hold, he said, but “I was crazy enough to punch away at a
typewriter for 40 years.”

The success of “Matterhorn” may be a kind of catharsis for
him and others. At a book signing, Marlantes said he looked up to see a
veteran standing in front of him with five books.

“I asked him, Why five? The man told me he spent 40
years trying to tell his children what it was like. The book will do my
talking, he said.”

Marlantes’ nearly 600-page book definitely talks to you as
it follows Mellas, a young second lieutenant, who helps lead Bravo
Company on a bloody mountaintop assault to capture Matterhorn, a site
near the Laotian border. Their success is short-lived when they are
ordered down to what becomes a death walk through the jungle, while
carrying a fallen comrade.

Next in what becomes an indictment of military
incompetence in an often confusing and pointless war, the men are
ordered to retake Matterhorn. It’s during segments like this that
Marlantes uses his skilled writing and battlefield experiences to put
you in the thick of the battle, where extraordinary heroics mingle with
the bungling bureaucracy of war.

Marlantes said in writing the book he pulled no punches
about the competence of officers and felt "concerned how the Marines
would receive the book.”

The Marines embraced "Matterhorn," and it is now used in classes at Annapolis and West Point. 

Battlefield action aside, “Matterhorn” is about the
absolute clumsiness of war and the incomprehensible effects it has on

“We have to ask what it does to a kid’s soul — it needs to be dealt with,” Marlantes said.

While the author may have written an extraordinary addition to the body of literature on war,  “Matterhorn" "is not pro-war or anti-war, according to Marlantes.

“It’s the story of being 19 and having to grow up there," he said. "If you write a story about war, it’s pretty ugly stuff.”

Karl Marlantes
Author talk and booksigning
7 p.m. Wednesday, May 18
Schuler Books & Music
1982 Grand River Ave.,
(517) 349-8840