Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes

If there is one thing Matterhorn faithfully captures, it is the circular and illogical nature of the Vietnam War. Through its pages, we follow a company of U.S. Marines as they dig in on a remote jungle hilltop outpost, abandon it to traipse through the jungle in an unsuccessful search for an invisible enemy, then return to the same hill, now occupied by the North Vietnamese Army.

This occupation of terrain the Marines were ordered to abandon being intolerable to their commanders, the company is ordered to retake the hill and suffers staggering losses at the hands of the NVA entrenched in the bunkers they had constructed days earlier.

Karl Marlantes, a veteran of the Vietnam War, finished writing this book in 1977, originally producing a more than 1,600 page manuscript. Kudos must be given to Marlantes for his command of the English language, in general, and of dialogue, in particular. The book is well written from a technical point of view.

But what about the story Matterhorn relates? If your knowledge of the Vietnam War is extensive, then you will understand critical nuances that are key to the plot. For instance, a single line reveals that a commander has forced his exhausted men to dig extensive shelters for fear of an air raid. The commander is venal and incompetent: the enemy – the NVA – did not have an air force. But this fact is not mentioned, which might lead many to believe the commander is merely strict, or perhaps even well meaning. There are several other instances like this, where readers with less knowledge of military history may not get it.

That same knowledge of war, especially of the Vietnam War, will make the performance of the American protagonists, who pull off feats of superhuman endurance, pushing the limits of credibility. Nearly 100 pages are given over to an agonizing 10-day patrol through hideous terrain. Although no contact with the enemy occurs, the jungle itself is brilliantly revealed as the fearsome foe it is. Various mishaps occur, including a graphic encounter with a tiger that proves fatal. The suffering of the troops is monumental, yet the patrol carries on for the entire 10 days…without food. I had to wonder if this would really happen?

At the other end of the spectrum, the reader who is without background knowledge of the Vietnam War or of jungle warfare will be treated to a faithful description of the misery of that particular combat environment. Here, the author’s descriptive skills come to the fore, and anyone reading these passages may well feel physically uncomfortable. Provoking that intense an effect is a notable achievement for a writer. Marlantes’ descriptions of the emotions experienced during combat, from the almost-paralyzing fear, to the confusion and horror of battle, to the sheer exultation of victory, are likewise delivered in a strong and believable style.

The book’s main goal, however, is not to describe the jungle, nor even the war that took place in that green maze. Matterhorn, like most war novels, focuses instead on the soldiers and their relationships with each other. And there the book is, for me, unsatisfying.

Over the course of only a few weeks, strangers become brothers. I found the characters engaging and wanted to know more about them. I am left wondering what was in those nearly 1,000 pages that were cut? I suspect there was more character development, and that the interpersonal relationships were allowed to mature at a more natural pace. If so, it is unfortunate those passages were excised.

Bottom line: If you want to read endlessly (and who wouldn’t?) about mud, leeches, jungle rot, immersion foot and cerebral malaria, with some realistic combat scenes thrown in (which are almost cathartic for the reader, given what precedes them), then Matterhorn is not a bad investment. To really be one for the ages, however, more realism would be needed, both in the actions and the reactions of the men we meet in its pages.

“There it is.”

The Map of True Places – Brunonia Barry

Up front I will admit I have not read Brunonia Barry’s very popular novel The Lace Reader yet, so this novel was my first go with Barry’s writing. (I do own The Lace Reader and will get to it, likely, in the fall.) This book presented an interesting problem for me: it was highly readable and had enough compelling moments to keep me moving forward yet the overall work fell very flat for me mostly because of writing style and issues with, what I feel to be, poor editing. When I finished the novel I went in search of reviews, curious about what others are thinking about the story. I kept encountering phrases such as: “masterfully woven”; “all the elements of a great book club book”; “engaging storytelling”; “another big hit”. Clearly, according to the many gushing reviews I read, I had missed the boat of greatness with this novel. And yet…I don’t think I did.

I have an appreciation for several facets of The Map of True Places. I thought the characters of Zee, Finch and Melville to be well written and the relationship between Zee and her father, Finch, believable, particularly through the worsening of his Parkinson’s disease. The inclusion of historical details about the shipyards of Salem and the boat Friendship were very interesting too. The problems for me, as I have already mentioned, had mostly to do with editing. It seems to have been sloppily done. Pieces of writing are repeated, nearly word-for-word, only a couple of pages later giving the sense of being hit over the head with details so we don’t forget. Dabblings in the mystical arena along with the use of coincidence did not endear me to the novel.

Here is the book description from the publisher, William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins:

Zee Finch has come a long way from a motherless childhood spent stealing boats—a talent that earned her the nickname Trouble. She’s now a respected psychotherapist working with the world-famous Dr. Liz Mattei. She’s also about to marry one of Boston’s most eligible bachelors. But the suicide of Zee’s patient Lilly Braedon throws Zee into emotional chaos and takes her back to places she though she’d left behind.

What starts as a brief visit home to Salem after Lilly’s funeral becomes the beginning of a larger journey for Zee. Her father, Finch, long ago diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, has been hiding how sick he really is. His longtime companion, Melville, has moved out, and it now falls to Zee to help her father through this difficult time. Their relationship, marked by half-truths and the untimely death of her mother, is strained and awkward.

Overwhelmed by her new role, and uncertain about her future, Zee destroys the existing map of her life and begins a new journey, one that will take her not only into her future but into her past as well. Like the sailors of old Salem who navigated by looking at the stars, Zee has to learn to find her way through uncharted waters to the place she will ultimately call home.

The book description offers readers a trifecta of intrigue, mystery and transformation. It is unfortunate The Map of True Places doesn’t deliver more resoundingly. While certainly quaint, this isn’t enough for me to feel rewarded or emotionally invested in Barry’s second novel.

In Cold Blood – Truman Capote

This book is a peculiarity. At once a compelling novel-style piece of work, yet also a minutely detailed reconstruction of the murders of four members of the Clutter family on November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas.

I was familiar with this book, as well as its subject, but had held off from reading it for years. I think I had built it up in my mind to be much gorier than it was, in actuality. While certainly some details were difficult, Capote’s style manages to arouse, if not empathy and compassion for the two men convicted of the crime, at least a gnawing need to get to the root of “Why?”.

Some details are tricky to believe. Conversations, particularly between Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, were so meticulous in their depth and detail I wonder how this was fully possible and/or realistic.

“Despite the book’s billing as a factual “True Crime” account, critics have challenged the authenticity of the book, arguing that Capote changed facts to suit his story, added scenes which never occurred, and re-created dialogue. Capote relied entirely on memorization when talking to subjects in the book, and did not use a tape recorder or take any written notes; this alone may have contributed to several inaccuracies in the book.”

And some details, while mentioned several times, are never answered. For example, on the day of her murder Nancy Clutter kept smelling cigarette smoke. The source of the odour was never discovered by Nancy, nor divulged in the book. Her father, Herb Clutter, was a staunch Methodist and disapproved of alcohol, caffeine and tobacco. He wouldn’t hire any worker who imbibe and would dismiss any employee caught doing so. Employees had to sign an agreement of abstinence. Also, Nancy Clutter observed her father had been out of sorts for the three weeks leading up to the murders. Again, neither why Nancy suspected something was wrong nor any further validity of the observation were ever explained to the reader.

When Capote learned of the quadruple murder, before the killers were captured, he decided to travel to Kansas and write about the crime. He was accompanied by his childhood friend and fellow author, Harper Lee, and together they interviewed local residents and investigators assigned to the case and took thousands of pages of notes. Capote ultimately spent six years working on the book. It is considered the original non-fiction novel.

Overall, the study of the lives and personalities of Smith and Hickock are compelling studies and the specific slice of the small town and people of the American Mid-West, from 1959 to 1965, were fleshed out so fully.

The Gin Closet by Leslie Jamison

The Gin Closet is the debut novel of Leslie Jamison. I have a particular interest in ‘first novels’. I want to know, or at least try to discover through reading them, what it was about a a given ‘first’ book that grabbed a publisher’s attention and made it to market. Usually I can find good reasons in compelling stories. Sometimes, admittedly, I am left scratching my head and wondering how, HOW a story ever made it through the publishing process. Occasionally I am blown away by potent talent. Leslie Jamison is a potent talent.The Gin Closet is the strongest debut novel I have ever read; it has been with me daily since I finished reading the novel two weeks ago. I am left wondering what Jamison could possibly do next but, in the mean time, I am awed by her writing and have absorb her characters as though they were wayward, delicate children needing a place of safety and protection.

I share with you the publisher’s description for this novel:

In the beginning, there was Tilly: fabulous and free, outrageous and untamable, vulnerable and terrified. Was it the Sixties that did her wrong, or the drugs, or the men, or was it the middle-class upbringing she couldn’t abide? As a young woman, she flees home for the hollow neon underworld of Nevada, looking for pure souls and finding nothing but bad habits. She stays away for decades, working the streets and worse, eventually drinking herself to the brink of death in the middle of the desert. One day, after Tilly has spent nearly thirty years without a family, her niece shows up on the doorstep of her dusty trailer.

Stella has been leading her own life of empty promise in New York City. She makes her living booking Botox appointments and national-media appearances for a famous (and famously neurotic) “inspirational” writer by day; she complains about her job at warehouse parties in remote boroughs by night; she waits for her married lover to make time in his schedule to screw her over, softly; and she takes care of her ailing grandmother in Connecticut. Before Stella’s grandmother dies, she tells Stella the truth about Tilly, her runaway daughter, and Stella decides to give up the vast and penetrating loneliness of the city to find this lost woman the family had never mentioned.

The Gin Closet unravels the strange and powerful intimacy that forms between Tilly and Stella as they move to San Francisco to make a home with Abe, Tilly’s overworked and elusive son. Shifting between the perspectives of both women, the narrative documents the construction of a fragile triangle that eventually breaks under its own weight.

With an uncanny ear for dialogue and a witty, unflinching candor about sex, love, and power, Leslie Jamison reminds us that no matter how unexpected its turns are, this life we’re given is all we have: the cruelties that unhinge us, the beauties that clarify us, the addictions that deform us, those fleeting possibilities of grace that fade as quickly as they come. In the words of writer Charles D’Ambrosio, this extraordinary novel teaches us that “history has its way, the body has its way, and the rebellions we believe in leave behind a bleak wisdom, if we’re lucky — and defeat, if we’re not.” The Gin Closet marks the debut of a stunning new talent in fiction.

A friend inquired as to whether the book was good – it is; very, very good – but I feel as though there are not sufficient words to express, in a review, my thoughts about the story or the writer. I need to invent new words to do this novel justice. The book is urgent and raw, and without requesting the readers sympathy, it demands of the reader to be a sentient human being. That Jamison, in this, her first novel (I can’t emphasize this enough apparently), can create and sustain these senses – of urgency, of compassion, of exposed nerves – is to be commended. Her writing elevates the story from being ‘another story about a disjointed and struggling family’ to being something wholly new. Jamison has given readers a work that is heart-achingly beautiful.