by Joe Schuster
Not long after Karl Marlantes came home from Vietnam, he sat down at a typewriter to try to purge the ghosts of his experience there by writing a novel. This was in the early 1970s, and Marlantes had served a year as a Marine infantry officer, first commanding a platoon and eventually a company. He’d been wounded twice. He’d witnessed friends bleed to death on the battlefield and had looked into the eyes of a young Vietcong soldier he killed. He was also haunted by the notion that he, and not an enemy soldier, might have fired the bullet that killed one of his own men during a firefight.
Dealing with what he’d seen and felt that year at war through a fictional lens seemed natural to Marlantes. He’d had ambitions to write ever since he was ten and collaborated with a cousin to turn out a story about two ten-year-olds who save the Earth from alien invaders, and he’d won the Tunic Prize for Literature when he was an undergraduate at Yale University during the mid-1960s.
He was in London that summer of 1971 and wrote the first draft of his war novel in a white heat, taking what he estimates as three months to pound out 1700 A4-sized pages of a first person, largely autobiographical account of his experience. A week after he typed the final period, he went back to reread his work and it dismayed him. He later described that first draft as not so much fiction as a manic, psychological dump and, more bluntly, as “pure C-R-A-P.”
Despite his disappointment, he did not give up on the project. By the late seventies, he had a third-person version that he thought was good enough to try to publish—but he could find no takers. There were already a number of Vietnam war novels on the market (most notably Tim O’Brien’s National Book Award winning Going After Cacciato), and so agents and publishers told Marlantes that they thought the public wouldn’t buy another one.
He tried again in the 1980s, but by then there’d also been critically acclaimed war movies, like The Deer Hunter, Full Metal Jacket and Apocalypse Now, and so, again, he found no interest in his book—especially one that was a massive, old-fashioned novel that was far more similar to Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead than it was to the more surreal narratives that had come out of Vietnam.
By the 1990s, Marlantes was still trying to find someone to publish his novel. A friend told him, “One of the problems is that no one knows who you are, they don’t know your name, and so maybe you should try to write a memoir.” So, he started another book – a second book that no one would buy.
But Marlantes, who believes that persistence is one of the most important traits a novelist needs, stayed with it and finally, roughly a decade into the current century, almost four decades after he’d cranked out that massive first person narrative, almost four decades after the United States pulled its troops out of Vietnam, he found a taker for his novel – a small non-profit press, El León Literary Arts, located in perhaps the center of antiwar protests during Vietnam: Berkeley, California.
The publisher for El León, Thomas Farber, was enthusiastic about the novel the first time he saw it. “By that time,” Farber says, “Vietnam was out of favor in New York and also, it was a long book and publishers are gun shy about that. But one of the reasons I set up the press was to publish books that I loved that were not getting published in the marketplace.”
Marlantes’s compensation for the book was meager, especially given it’d taken him well more than thirty years to publish it: El León planned to print 1,200 copies of the novel and would give Marlantes 120 of them—no money, just the books.
But once Marlantes’s novel, by then called Matterhorn, was out in the world, it quickly became one of those publishing stories:
It won a prize, the Barnes and Noble “Discover” award. Sessalee Hensley, the head fiction buyer for the book giant, called Morgan Entrekin, publisher at Grove/Atlantic to tell him he needed to consider acquiring the book from El León.
Entrekin remembers, “[She] called on a Friday afternoon [and] I went by her office later that day and picked up a copy of the El León edition and started reading it right away.”
Within fifty pages, Entrekin was gripped by the narrative and read what was then an 800-page work in two or three days and decided his house would take it on. “I thought it would benefit from some judicious editing,” he says, “but as I told Thomas Farber and Karl, I was prepared to publish the book as it was if that was what Karl wanted.”
Marlantes said he would be open to working with an editor and by the time the Grove/Atlantic edition came out, it was down to 566 pages, plus a glossary of military jargon.
Entrekin initially hoped Matterhorn might sell 15,000 to 20,000 copies in hardcover; but it caught fire, and has since sold copies that number well into the six figures. It wound up on the New York Times list of “notable books” for 2010, along with the Top 10 Bestsellers List, and won Marlantes additional prizes.
The next year, Grove/Atlantic published the memoir that Marlantes had also spent twenty years working on, What It Is Like To Go To War, and it too became a best seller and appeared on a number of “best of” lists for that year.
Both Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War are powerful considerations not only of the American experience in Vietnam but larger issues. While Matterhorn is no longer merely an autobiographical rant, as Marlantes’s first draft was, it still draws heavily on his own experiences in the war—something that becomes clear if you read the two books side-by-side. Both, for example, carry an account of a Marine second lieutenant coming face-to-face with a young Vietcong soldier about to throw a grenade at American Marines.
From What It Is Like to Go to War:
Then he rose, grenade in hand. He was pulling the fuse. I could see the blood running down his face from a head wound. He cocked his arm back to throw – and then he saw me looking at him across my rifle barrel. He stopped. He looked right at me […] I remember hoping he wouldn’t throw the grenade […] and I wouldn’t have to shoot him. But his lips snarled back and he threw it right at me.
As the grenade left his hand I pulled the trigger […]
From Matterhorn, where Marlantes has collapsed his own name to derive the name of his principle character, Mellas:
The young [North Vietnamese soldier] pulled another grenade. He cocked his arm back to throw it. Then he saw Mellas’s bloodied, blackened face and the rifle pointed squarely at him.
Mellas watched the young man’s face change from determination to horror to resignation. Still Mellas did not pull the trigger […] ‘Just don’t throw the fucking thing and I won’t shoot. Just give up.’ But Mellas saw hatred fill the young man’s face […] And even now, Mellas thought, the kid must have guessed that if he didn’t throw the grenade, Mellas wasn’t going to shoot him. But he threw the grenade anyway […]
Fuck you, then, Mellas thought bitterly as the grenade sailed toward him. He pulled the trigger […]
Both books contain scenes in which the protagonists, Marlantes and Mellas, each try to rescue a wounded member of his platoon only to, perhaps, fire the bullet that ends up killing him; and both the real and the fictional lieutenant suffer gravely from the question, did he kill the Marine or did the Vietcong?
Both books deal with what Marlantes has characterized as the often senseless nature of war, the inflated body counts to appease senior officers looking for some mark that an offensive was successful; both books give us a portrait of a war that was often confusing, a war that Marlantes says had no clear objective.
While the books echo one another, they succeed on their own terms, because each tackles Marlantes’s experiences in a different way—both books are brave, but in their own ways.
In Matterhorn, Marlantes does more than write a narrative about a Marine in Vietnam in the late 1960s. He says he wanted to write a fictional account of his experiences because, in fiction, readers can identify with characters more than they can in memoir. “In fiction, you lose the distance between yourself and what is being described,” he said in a talk he gave in 2010 at the Pritzker Military Library. “It’s the great power of fiction to allow the reader to step out of [his] skin and step into someone else’s, to expand [his] consciousness. We become bigger people by reading good literature.”
But in the novel, he does more than draw us into the world that Mellas and his comrades inhabit: Marlantes taps into something more universal, since he structures the narrative as a modern retelling of the Parsifal legend, with Mellas as Parsifal, the young warrior who must learn compassion to become his best self.
According to Marlantes, he didn’t initially set out to retell the Parsifal legend, but saw himself writing, instead, “about a young man learning when compassion trumps the rules and growing to manhood.”
While he was working on the book, however, he was also struggling with his own grief, anger, and wounds from the war (he later learned that he was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder). As part of his work, he read Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell and eventually came to a Jungian named Robert Johnson, who’d written about the Parsifal legend as an expression of a young man’s journey toward maturity and wholeness; Marlantes realized then that his book, without his intending it, echoed the legend. “I think the lasting myths are ‘lasting’ because they so beautifully mirror our own psychology,” he says. “So if one writes a novel that truly mirrors the psychology of a young warrior, then it is no surprise that there is a myth that fits it.”
Like Parsifal, for example, Mellas encounters a figure with a grave wound to his manhood—a squad leader named Fisher who discovers that a leech has crawled up his urethra and has to undergo painful and dangerous field surgery to remove it (in the original, Parsifal meets the Fisher King, who suffers a wound to his testicles by the same spear that pierced the side of Jesus as he hung on the cross). That event, in fact, is the centerpiece of the novel’s riveting opening chapter – one of the most compelling first chapters I can remember reading in any novel.
Just as Matterhorn echoes the Parsifal legend, so does What It Is Like to Go To War echo Marlantes’s journey to heal himself from the physical, psychological and spiritual wounds he suffered in the war; and Marlantes deals with his struggles with an unblinking eye, willing to describe himself in unflattering detail. He describes the way he sometimes responded in inappropriate rage for years after he came home from Vietnam (before he realized he was suffering from PTSD). He reports that he sometimes bullied his own children. He tells us about the time in Vietnam that he gave in to what he calls “white hot rage,” when, after one of his platoon died, he created a battle scenario in which he and his men had no choice but to kill enemy soldiers—not for any clear tactical gain but to avenge the death of the Marine.
We all shot anybody we saw, never offering a chance for surrender. Finally, the NVA started pulling back from their positions […] I knew we had them on the run and that now was the time to pour it on […]
I’d gone over some edge. This was blood lust.
In another chapter, titled “Heroism,” Marlantes tells us bluntly that, when he was in Vietnam, he desperately wanted a medal: “I’d always wanted [one],” he writes, “ever since I’d looked at my father’s medals from World War II, ever since I’d seen Audie Murphy in To Hell and Back […] It wasn’t enough to do heroic things. I had to be recognized for it.”
Marlantes did win medals in Vietnam—the Navy Cross, two Purple Hearts, as well as other commendations for valor. “[E]very few weeks I was in front of some general getting another medal […] And I, Mr. Hot Shot, got more and more special […] Even better, I quickly learned that most people who outranked me, who couldn’t top my rows of ribbons, didn’t feel right chewing me out for minor infractions. I pushed this to the limit.”
Marlantes’s willingness to expose so many of his flaws has a greater purpose that makes What It Is Like to Go to War more than, to borrow his own assessment of the first draft of Matterhorn, a confessional “psychological dump.” Over and over, he stresses the importance of acknowledging shadows—both the shadow “self” and, in the case of the US, the collective shadow.
Paraphrasing Carl Jung, Marlantes says, “That which you do not bring to consciousness you are condemned to repeat unconsciously.”
Writing Matterhorn and What It Is Like to Go to War have done more for Marlantes than bring him commercial and critical success: working on those two books for decades meant a deep, ongoing confrontation with his “shadow” self. “I would sometimes end up sobbing at my desk when I was writing parts of [What It Is Like to Go To War],” he says. “Clearly it was affecting me psychologically. There is a guy named Joe Bobrow [founder of a nonprofit organization to help returning veterans settle into their lives]. He once said that what we need to do is turn our ghosts into ancestors. A ghost haunts you and it causes behavior problems—all of the stuff that PTSD causes. If you can get it out of your system and treat it as an ancestor, something that you can look at like you would a picture on your desk, then the ghost no longer haunts you.
“Writing What It Is Like was probably the major way I turned ghosts into ancestors.”
Click here to listen to an audio interview with Karl Marlantes.
Joseph M. Schuster is the author of The Might Have Been (Ballantine, 2012), a finalist for the CASEY award for the best baseball book of the year and one of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch‘s 25 favorite fiction books of 2012. A member of the faculty of Webster University, he has published short fiction in the Iowa Review, the Kenyon Review, and the Missouri Review, among other journals.