A big, new novel about the Vietnam War

The New York Times featured an article yesterday about U. S. soldiers writing memoirs on their war experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan. “So far there are relatively few novels” about the current wars, the article said. It attributed the fictional dearth to soldiers needing “more time to explore ‘what happened inside,'” according to Tim O’Brien, who’s written both memoirs and novels about his Vietnam war experience. (Going after Cacciato won the 1979 National Book Award in fiction.)

A case in point is ex-marine Karl Marlantes’ novel Matterhorn to be published in April. This 700-page Vietnam epic took 30 years to write.  When  it was completed, the author couldn’t find an agent or publisher until El León Literary Arts, a small publishing house in Berkeley, saw its merits and planned to publish it . The book was printed, review copies were mailed, and then interested New York publishing houses started calling El León’s editor-in-chief Thomas Farber. That’s how the small publishing house came to join forces with New York publishing house Grove/Atlantic in getting Matterhorn to readers.

The author Marlantes earned several military medals, including the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism. He joined the Marines after high school, but he got into Yale and so went to college first. Then he received a Rhodes Scholarship. Although the military continued to give him a leave of absence to attend school, he felt he was hiding behind privilege at Oxford, according to The Oregonian, and walked away: “He was in Morocco, living — drifting, really — off his Oxford scholarship funds when his duty became clear. He showed up at a U.S. naval base in yellow curls and a djellaba, smelling like a camel, and announced, ‘I’m 2nd Lt. Marlantes.'” Marlantes went to Vietnam in 1968.

Publisher’s Weekly gave Matterhorn a starred review saying, “…he brings a long, torturous war back to life with realistic characters and authentic, thrilling combat sequences.” Library Journal also gave it a starred review with this caution, “Obviously not a brief, cheery read…”

2 thoughts on “A big, new novel about the Vietnam War

  1. Isn’t it interesting how some great books get noticed and widely read only via a long, circuitous “back way” — I’m thinking of “Firmin,” too. Each one of those routes is its own story, largely depending on changing reading interests, trends and individual editors or publishers. Thanks for this recommendation.


  2. Much of the time it’s word of mouth that creates the change in course. Regarding “Matterhorn,” Barnes & Noble staffers read it and mentioned it to NY publishers.


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