First-time author Karl Marlantes tackles some tough subjects—racism among the troops, for one—in his Vietnam novel, Matterhorn.What makes this novel so irresistible is Marlantes’ skill at peeling away the many layers of truth in combat.

Matterhorn is one of those countless hills in Vietnam that makes young men’s lives so cheap. In this case, it’s the Marines of Bravo Company and the hardened NVA (North Vietnamese Army) soldiers. The story revolves around a young Marine lieutenant, Waino Mellas, who must quickly learn the difference between officer candidate school and the reality of life in the bush. Lt. Mellas tries to straddle the line between being “one of the guys” and a platoon commander. This division between the troops and a low-ranking officer like Mellas (who is only a few years older than his men) can become too vague if he is overly friendly. In combat, that can be disastrous.

The delicate balance between life and death resonates throughout Matterhorn, as it does in real combat. What is so fresh and fascinating about this novel is Marlantes’ depiction of the specific activities and conflicting motivations that take place in a war zone. For instance, many of the officers (including Lt. Mellas) want recognition by those in command above them. And how, aside from concrete evidence of a clear victory, is this accomplished? With inflated enemy kill counts, something that was commonplace in the Vietnam War. Marlantes also shows the nature of life in the bush for these grunts, the long hours spent contemplating the imminent sudden bursts of horror and loss.

One can only hope that the size of this amazing novel (nearly 600 pages) doesn’t intimidate potential readers, because it is one of those rare books that will never leave their minds. Great novels are underscored by human drama, and Marlantes’ depiction of men under stress—no matter what race or background—is searing and complex. Matterhorn will not only take its place on the top shelf of war fiction, it’s going to knock a few books off. It’s that good.

Michael Lee was a Marine, wounded during the 77-day siege of Khe Sanh.

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