"(Filling sandbags,) the small E-tool burned his blisters and sores. He watched the blood and pus from the jungle rot on his fingers and wrists smear in with the mud and rainwater. He paused occasionally to wipe his hands on his trousers, not even thinking that he had to sleep in them. Everything soon had the same greasy consistency anyway, mixing in with the urine that he couldn't quite cut off because he was so cold, the semen from his last wet dream, the cocoa he'd spilled the day before, the snot he rubbed off, the pus from his skin ulcers, the blood from the popped leaches, and the tears he wiped away so nobody would see that he was homesick." - A teenage Marine in the field, in MATTERHORN
MATTERHORN is the phenomenal first-novel by Karl Marlantes about the experience of being a Marine infantryman in Vietnam. Even if you didn't know (from the book's back cover) that the author is a veteran of that conflict, you'd know from the very first page that he'd been there and experienced or witnessed all it had to offer: the mud, leeches, jungle rot, immersion foot, drenching rain, fog, mosquitoes, tigers, C-rations, dank hooches, weaponry, scout dogs, jungle marches, razor-sharp elephant grass, barbed wire, entrenchments, infantry assaults, mortar attacks, battlefield first-aid, perilous helicopter missions, racism, fraggings, exhaustion, supply failures, death of friends, horrific wounds, land mines, incompetent command leadership, ammunition shortages, dysentery, close-up and personal killing, terror, boredom, homesickness, short-timer sticks, and blood-lust. Also, the simple pleasures of a warm Coke or hot coffee on the front lines or a cold beer and cleansing shower in the relative relaxation of a rear staging area.
The novel's hero is Second Lieutenant Waino Mellas, the boot commander of the First Platoon, Bravo Company, First Battalion, Twenty-Fourth Regiment, Fifth Marine Division. At the opening of the narrative, Bravo Company occupies Fire Support Base Matterhorn in the jungle highlands of northwest South Vietnam in the corner formed by the Demilitarized Zone and Laos.
All of the combat action takes place on or around Matterhorn, a wretched hill of no inherent value except as a strategic position from which to engage and interdict the North Vietnamese Army. To battalion and regimental command, it's but a map coordinate. To the grunt Marines, it's a place where they're sent to die or be maimed.
To Mellas, a Marine Reserve officer out of Princeton University, Matterhorn is the forge that will make him a combat leader. And, while he'll come to realize the futility of the conflict that was America's Vietnam imbroglio, he will also come to value the camaraderie, loyalty and true grit demonstrated by a group of young men - not much more than overgrown kids, really - in desperate circumstances far from home.
Fiction writers can go their entire careers and not pen a novel as powerful as this debut work by Marlantes. At 566 pages, plus a 31-page Appendix that's a "Glossary of Weapons, Technical Terms, Slang, and Jargon", MATTERHORN was of intimidating size before I read the opening sentence. Before long, I resented having to put the book down. This is a tribute to the Vietnam veteran and the Marine Corps, and may be one of the most vivid and compelling literary renderings you'll read all year. And you will, or should, appreciate even more the young Americans in harm's way in the country's contemporary overseas conflicts.