Wednesday, March 10, 2010: Maximum Shelf: Matterhorn


Atlantic Monthly Press: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

Grove/Atlantic: Author Barry Hannah 1942-2010

Editors' Note

Maximum Shelf: Matterhorn

In this edition of Maximum Shelf, the monthly Shelf Awareness feature that focuses on an upcoming title that we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere, we present Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes. The review and interview are by Marilyn Dahl. Grove/Atlantic has helped support the issue.

By the way, Matterhorn has an affidavit on-sale date of March 23. To place an order and return a signed on-sale date affidavit, please immediately contact Grove/Atlantic's distributor, Publishers Group West, attention: Leslie Jobson.


Atlantic Monthly Press: The Journal Keeper by Phyllis Theroux


Books & Authors

Karl Marlantes: The Long Road to Publication

A graduate of Yale University and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Karl Marlantes served as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation medals for valor, two Purple Hearts and 10 Air Medals. He lives in rural Washington State. Matterhorn is his first novel.


You started Matterhorn in the 1970s. How did you finally find a publisher? This seems like an act of bravery, to keep going for 35 years.

Yes, it did take a long time--I started it on a typewriter! I failed to get it published when I first tried, in 1977. No one would read it, no one was interested--we had lost an unpopular war.

In the mid-'80s, I had been working on it all along, and had read all the books about query letters and finding an agent; still, no one would read it, and this time I was told that Hollywood had already "done it."

In the '90s, I was told to cut it in half and switch the story to the Gulf War. In the '00s--you can see where this is going--I was told to cut it in half and switch it to Afghanistan.

A few years ago, I gave the manuscript to a friend to read, who told Tom Farber at El León Literary Arts, a nonprofit publisher in Berkeley, about it. Tom told him to have me send it to his editor, Kit Duane. When my friend called and told me, I said, "You want me to spend $50 to copy and send a book about Marines in Vietnam to a woman who lives in Berkeley?!" But Kit loved it, she couldn't put it down, and I got the deal with El León: a print run of 1,200 copies and 120 copies for myself. That was my pay. That, and some truly wonderful and encouraging blurbs. One in particular, by Jon Stallworthy, a great poet and scholar and the editor of The Oxford Book of War Poetry, would have been sufficient to allow me to die knowing that at least he said I could write.
 
Then my wife suggested that El León submit Matterhorn to some contests, saying, "At least they'll have to read it." It went to Barnes & Noble, where Jill Lamar, the head of the Discover Great New Writers program, gave it to Sessalee Hensley. Sessalee knew if they chose Matterhorn, they'd overwhelm El León with the print run they required, so she sent it to several publishers, including Morgan Entrekin, who read it and loved it. Morgan and Tom cut a deal two weeks before El León's pub date, May 2009, and here we are, after 35 years.

I have to say, it was women who rescued this book from obscurity. So many women were early readers, and so many women love the book. One of the best blurbs for Matterhorn is from a woman, the Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Christina Robb. I think the intense relationships appeal to women readers, and they are curious about not only Vietnam but about combat in general. I've had several women call me or e-mail me with statements like, "Until I read your novel, I never understood why my brother is all by himself up in Alaska" or "why my husband behaves as he does." This is very gratifying to me.

What is also very gratifying is the response and support from independent booksellers. Grove immediately started receiving positive e-mails from them on the Grove ARCs, and e-mails, blogs and twitters started going around the independent community. Last year in April, Annie Bloom's in Portland ordered more than 100 of the original El León version and they sold out. It's encouraging to have these book lovers excited about the novel.

Why did you write it? What kept you going?

When I got back from the war, I felt compelled to write and wrote another novel before Matterhorn, a 1,700-page book that was crap, just spewing vitriol. At the time, I had been assigned to the Pentagon, and one day I was delivering some papers to the White House. Across the street, people were waving Viet Cong flags and chanting obscenities at me. I stood there stunned. I thought, you don't know who I am. You don't know my life circumstances. This was a time when nightclubs in D.C. had signs saying "No servicemen allowed."

In college, before I went to Vietnam, I started dating a girl. Early on, we were sitting on the steps below her apartment, and I told her that I was in the Marine reserves. She looked at me with horror and ran up the stairs.

When I was 30, I read Delta Wedding by Eudora Welty. She taught me the value of literature: when I got inside the wedding planner's head, I understood how important every detail of the event was. There is no way I could have done that except through literature. With my novel, I am trying to reach across that street and up the stairs. I want to let people get out of their own skins and into someone else's. That's how we all become bigger people.

How has the book changed over three decades of writing and revision?

If it had been published in 1977, it would be half the book it is today, and I don't mean in length. Originally I danced around the racial issues. After reaching a certain age, I developed more empathy for 19-year-olds with high testosterone and racial divisions. I also had more self-confidence in my ability to get into other heads. I could step back and see that the military is where trust and working together happened. Truman may have passed a law to integrate the military, but Vietnam is where true integration took place.

I also read a lot about the mythology of war. I read the psychologist C.G. Jung whose concept of a shadow self (we're capable of violence but don't want to face it) and how we unconsciously project that shadow self onto other people was very important. We need to understand that about ourselves. The main character, Mellas, is undergoing the hero's journey; he's also learning compassion. In my writing, that could only come after reflection and maturity.

You were a lieutenant in Vietnam. What did you do before Vietnam and after?

I joined the reserves when I was 18, got out when I was 24, and was on active duty for three years. I was at Yale when I got a Rhodes scholarship, so I asked the Marines if I could delay active duty for two years in order to go to Oxford. They agreed. But while I was at Oxford, my friends from training were shipping out, kids from my Oregon hometown were dying in Vietnam. I felt I was hiding behind privilege. I decided that if I had any moral fiber at all, I had to leave Oxford and either go to Vietnam or to Sweden. I really didn't know what I wanted to do, so I took off for North Africa. I was basically a mess. Finally I made a decision and showed up at a naval base in Morocco, dressed in a djellabah and yellow leather slippers, saying I was a Marine 2nd Lieutenant and wanted to go on active duty. Two weeks later I was at Quantico.

After the Marines, I got married and started a family. Braces and tap-dancing lessons meant I had to earn a living, so I worked as a consultant for energy companies, traveling all over the world--it was a high adrenaline job, and I thought a few isolated panic attacks just came with the high-stakes work. But in the '90s, I attended a mental health fair and talked to someone about my stress, anger, anxiety and what could only be described as crazy, high-risk behavior. He listened and simply asked, "Were you ever in a war?" At that, I started crying, really crying, and was immediately sent to a VA clinic, where they told me I had PTSD. Until that point, I hadn't heard of PTSD and thought my problems were work-related. I started healing and am still on meds. My VA therapists turned my life around.

The story in Matterhorn is both timeless and specific to a time. What is the difference between Vietnam and now?

The biggest difference is the all-volunteer military. I'm not sure it's really healthy for our republic. I think a disproportionate share of our military come from what I call the military "L"--North Dakota to Texas to Georgia. We are literally hiring mercenaries to help fight our battles, mirroring the way the Romans hired Germanic peoples. There is no threat to an ordinary or privileged kid now, no draft. There is no stake for most of us and for most of our political decision-makers. We overload a tiny percentage of our citizens to fight our wars, and with tour after tour, we are destroying a segment of our society. The costs to them are apparent. I worry about the costs to our democracy.

The country still hasn't digested Vietnam. It's still the elephant in the living room. There is still great division over the war and great misunderstanding. Recently, on a pre-publication tour, I had someone tell me that there was no difference between joining the military during Vietnam and joining the SS--even if the person was drafted.

Why do we need to keep Vietnam in our collective memory? What is important for today?

What's that old saying, if you don't understand history you're doomed to repeat it? The parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan are frightening. The original mission was to find bin Laden and that made sense to me; now it's to establish a democracy. We are supporting a corrupt government; the enemy can cross borders and we can't chase them; we have self-imposed rules of engagement and they don't; the Taliban can melt into the population and disappear and we stick out like sore thumbs and don't even speak the language; we know very little about the culture and what motivates these people. The final parallel is that those people are motivated to fight forever and the American people aren't. The Afghans in the tribal areas are very ignorant about the U.S. or even the central government in Kabul, but they do know that infidels are on their turf, and they are never going to quit fighting until we leave. You can't coerce people into democracy; you can only lead them there by example.

I'm no pacifist. I am exceedingly proud to have been a Marine. I didn't want to write an antiwar book or a prowar book. I just wanted to write what was true about war. The more people know what is true about war, the better we will understand what we are asking of our kids when we send them in to straighten out the messes we adults have made. We'll be more likely to make certain that we have done everything possible before we admit failure and have to send them.


Black Cat: The Hole We're In by Gabrielle Zevin


Matterhorn Playlist

The following are songs that Karl Marlantes considers significant to or expressive of the time in which Matterhorn is set:

We Gotta Get Outta This Place by Eric Burdon and the Animals. (Marlantes says, "The chorus was almost an anthem: 'We got to get out of this place. If it's the last thing we ever do. We got to get out of this place. There's a better life for me and you.' People would sing it stoned, drunk or sober, shouting it at the top of their lungs in bars, enlisted clubs, officer clubs. A Vietnam veteran can't hear this song without being put right back to that time and place.") 

I Heard It Through the Grapevine by Marvin Gaye 

Homeward Bound by Simon and Garfunkel 

Wild Thing by the Troggs

Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud by James Brown

I Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die by Country Joe and the Fish

Memphis Soul Stew by King Curtis and the Kingpins

Born to Be Wild by Steppenwolf

Bad Moon Rising by Creedence Clearwater Revival

Someday We'll be Together by the Supremes

Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash

Magical Mystery Tour by the Beatles

Light My Fire by the Doors

The Night Train by James Brown

I'll Be There by the Jackson Five

I Say a Little Prayer by Aretha Franklin

Wichita Lineman by Glen Campbell

Sing Me Back Home by Merle Haggard

19th Nervous Breakdown by the Rolling Stones

Stoned Soul Picnic by the Fifth Dimension

 


Book Brahmin: Karl Marlantes

On your nightstand now:

I've got books piled up all over the house--I drive my wife nuts leaving them everywhere and have four or five going at all times. Right now I'm re-reading Tolstoy's short novel The Cossacks; a biography of Camus called Camus: A Romance by Elizabeth Hawes; Dark Wood to White Rose: Journey and Transformation in Dante's Divine Comedy by Helen Luke; and I read a little each night from a new translation of the Bible by Eugene Peterson, checking it against the New International Version translation.

Favorite book when you were a child:

When I was really young I loved On Beyond Zebra by Dr. Seuss. When I was a middle-schooler it was C.S. Forester's Captain Horatio Hornblower. I really identified with Hornblower's shyness and social awkwardness while at the same time imagining myself being a brilliant hero.

Your top five authors:

The two that don't ever leave the list are Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Tolstoy can make memorable characters out of horses and Dostoevsky can keep me up wandering streets late at night with the big questions. The rest of the list probably changes based on my mood, but right now one would be J.D. Salinger. I've read Franny and Zooey and Nine Stories many times and never tire of them. I love Simenon's Inspector Maigret stories. Not only do they transport me to France, but they cover so much time that they transport me to different decades in France. I reach for the poetry of A.E. Housman and W.B. Yeats pretty frequently.

Book you've faked reading:

Finnegans Wake. I once heard a hotshot English literature academic say that unless you come to terms with Finnegans Wake, you'll never be a writer. Since I'm a writer, coming to terms must have meant giving up. But it did sit in a prominent place in my house for several years, hopefully giving the illusion to people who didn't know me very well that I was actually reading it. I even read several books about Finnegans Wake, like Joseph Campbell's A Skeleton Key to Finnegans Wake, and got through them fine. Maybe the other aspect of coming to terms with the book was realizing that I'm just not smart enough to keep up with Joyce. I sometimes wonder if that professor was either.
 
Book you're an evangelist for:

I'm really excited about Lily King's Father of the Rain, which is coming out in July. She writes about father-daughter love and what psychologists call "father hunger"--the longing and emptiness felt by people whose fathers were either physically or emotionally absent--in a way that gripped me right through the book. There are probably more people suffering from father hunger than from war trauma.
 
Book you've bought for the cover:

That's a great question. I think I've probably bought magazines for the cover but I honestly don't think I've ever bought a book for the cover. But I do remember going in to see The Graduate on the strength of that picture of Dustin Hoffman looking at Anne Bancroft putting on her stockings.
 
Book that changed your life:

Memories, Dreams, and Reflections by C.G. Jung. When I was a kid, I had some really weird experiences that verged on the spiritual. I don't want to talk about it too much, because it's hard to explain, but this book helped me make sense of them. I'm a Catholic, but reading Jung really changed how I interpret the mass and the religious symbols of the church.
 
Favorite line from a book:

"A little tap on the windowpane, as though something had struck it, followed by a plentiful light falling sound, as of grains of sand being sprinkled from a window overhead, gradually spreading, intensifying, acquiring a regular rhythm, becoming fluid, sonorous, musical, immeasurable, universal: it was the rain."--Proust, Swann's Way. I grew up on the Oregon coast. Enough said.
 
Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Lord of the Rings. I read it when I was a sophomore in college. I skipped all of my classes and sustained myself on pizza and short naps until I finished it.



Book Review

Mandahla: Matterhorn

, $24.95, 9780802119285/080211928X, one-day laydown March 23, 2010)

Once in a while, a wondrous and remarkable book comes along, written from the deep places of the heart with passion and courage. Matterhorn is that book. Karl Marlantes's timeless tale of bravery, misery, stupidity and love is nothing short of a hero's journey, a quest for meaning. If I had any reservations about reading another novel about the Vietnam War, I soon abandoned them in this mesmerizing, heart-pounding ride through three months of combat, where the rhythm of war gripped me relentlessly.

Matterhorn begins in 1969, during the winter monsoon season in Quang-Tri province, where 2nd Lt. Waino Mellas is assigned to a fire support base with the 1st Battalion, 24th Marines. Commanding a rifle platoon of 40 Marines was not what he had in mind when he joined the reserves nor was actual combat part of the plan, but the shortage of infantry officers has changed that. Still, Mellas is ambitious and is soon trying to work the system to get ahead, take over the company, win a medal and save his own skin. At the same time, he fears he's too chickenshit to lead. He'll find out immediately, since the three platoons of Bravo Company have an assignment--occupy the hill dubbed Matterhorn.

Matterhorn, over a mile high and shrouded by cold monsoon rains and gray clouds, is to be defoliated and flattened to accommodate an artillery battery. Despite delays due to a barrage by an NVA machine gun, the impenetrable fog and the constant, badgering wrath of battalion commander Lt. Col. Simpson, Bravo spends six spirit-breaking days completing the bunkers they were ordered to construct and a seventh day resting by doubling their patrols. Then they are ordered by Simpson to leave Matterhorn and head into the valley to look for the enemy. Simpson, breaking open a second bottle of Wild Turkey, says, "I smell 'em, goddamn it, I smell 'em." As he makes plans to divert Bravo Company, his assistant, Maj. Blakely, wonders when--or if--the last supply drop was scheduled. Then, as the whiskey gets smoother, the question leaves his mind.

The platoon makes the best progress it can, but it's never enough for Simpson, who looks at a map but doesn't understand the terrain. They start to collapse in the cold rain, suffering everything from jungle rot to hypothermia to malaria. Men--boys, really--need to be medevaced out, but Simpson remains relentless in pushing them. They need toughening up. They need to regain their pride. They need to go back to Matterhorn.

So Bravo moves out again, with no resupply and more casualties to come. Starving and thirsty, some of the kids try eating various plants and peel tree bark to chew. They lick dew and fog off their ponchos. "This march was not in four-four time. There was no time. There was forever. Trees creaked unseen above them. Direction became meaningless. The compass needle pointed only to darkness." They assault Matterhorn, now taken over by NVA, entrenched in the bunkers the Marines had just built.

"The fog hung thick and heavy as the kids formed into a single line on the south side of the hill. Mellas felt as if the clouds above him were slabs of slate. The kids were fatigued and filled with despair at the insanity of it all. Yet they were all checking ammunition, sliding bolts back and forth, preparing to participate in the insanity. It was as if the veterans of the company, succumbing to this insanity, had decided to commit suicide. Mellas, sick with exhaustion, now knew why men threw themselves on hand grenades."

Two of the most powerful themes in Matterhorn are played out as the assault winds on, with heavy losses: the adrenaline and terror of combat and the deep bonds formed among the Marines.

The monotony mixed with fear creates unbearable tension, where in an instant fatigue gets swept away by terror. On an earlier patrol,

"The fourteen-man snake moved in spasms. The point man would suddenly crouch, eyes and ears straining, and those behind him would bunch up, crouch, and wait to move again. They would get tired, let down their guard. Then, frightened by a strange sound, they would become alert once again. Their eyes flickered rapidly back and forth as they tried to look in all directions at once. They carried Kool-Aid packages, Tang--anything to kill the chemical taste of the water in their plastic canteens. Soon the smears of purple and orange Kool-Aid on their lips combined with the fear in their eyes to make them look like children returning from a birthday party at which the hostess had shown horror films."

And the night holds a special dread, when wind and rain can mask the sound of the enemy crawling toward them: "The light died. Voices were silenced. Darkness and fear replaced light and reason. The whisper of a leaf scraping on bark would make heads turn involuntarily and hearts gallop. The surrounding blackness and the unseen wall of dripping growth left no place to run. In that black wet nothingness the perimeter became just a memory. Only imagination gave it form."

In combat, the Marines aren't fighting for the brass or for ideals. When gunfire erupts from the hill above them, everyone wants to hide. But they keep on, not because of conscious decision, but because of friendship. In five seconds on Matterhorn, one-third of the remaining 34 in the platoon goes down. Some of the wounded crawl for cover. "Others, unable to move, watched the sky in numb terror or simply shut their eyes, praying for a friend to reach them and drag them to safety. Their friends came."

The Marines in Matterhorn are kids. Mellas is 21, Cassidy, the redneck veteran gunnery sergeant, is in his 20s, Jancowitz is 19. Janc is in love with a Bangkok bar girl; Parker is a black revolutionary; Pollini's an inept screw-up; Lt. Hawke is a revered leader and, at 22, a combat veteran. Lt. Goodwin is a natural combat leader; Lt. Kendall can't read a map; Cortell, a farmboy from Four Corners, Miss, is called Reverend for his faith; Cpl. Fisher has a very unfortunate run-in with a leech; Arran, the dog-handler, re-ups to stay with his dog, Pat; Jackson, a brother with a portable 45-rpm record player, tutors Mellas on race. "All of them were too thin, too young, and too exhausted." But these kids make decisions, play God, choose the next men to walk point--possibly the next men to die.

When Parker, in convulsions with a high fever, is placed in a stream to cool off, Cortell baptizes him as he lies dying. "Mellas filled a hand with water for a drink. But he just looked at it and let the water drain from between his fingers. Then he covered his eyes with his palm, his wet fingers against his forehead, to hide his tears." Another baptism, with more to come, as Mellas faces fear, deprivation and insanity. His journey to compassion is short but intense. He makes decisions about life, combat and friends, and how to live what may be his very short life. Power and prestige become empty, and their pursuit endless. "Meaning came out of living. Meaning could only come from his choices and actions." He runs up Matterhorn, "as he'd never run before, with neither hope nor despair. He ran because the world was divided into opposites and his side had already been chosen for him, his only choice being whether or not to play his part with heart and courage."

From the constant vibration of fear to the racial tensions of the time, from the consequences of pride and ambition to the rewards of sacrifice and love, Karl Marlantes has written a novel that is vivid, thrilling and authentic. He has told the eternal story of an insane war: "People who didn't even know each other were going to kill each other over a hill none of them cared about." He has made plain the "mad monkey" inside combat veterans, Lemon and Coke, Loud and Clear. --Marilyn Dahl



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