Friday, July 16, 2010

Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War
by Karl Marlantes
narrated by Bronson Pinchot

Blackstone Audio, Inc.
20.4 hours

I picked this title up because of the helicopter on the cover. Yep, that's right, I let cover art influence my reading choice! There is something about a helicopter in flight that evokes excited feelings of hope, rescue and relief. If I were a different kind of person, I might feel the same way about an image of a Prince Charming on a white charger, but I'm not and so there it is. I do not generally judge a book by its cover, but in this case, the helicopter was the siren song that seduced me into choosing this title. The only question that remained was whether I would read the book in print or, listen to it in audio.

That question was answered when the narrator was in Ashland, OR and my husband and I took him out to dinner. During the course of the dinner, Bronson was asking about "the Columbus book." It was explained to him that the book was WAITING FOR COLUMBUS (by Thomas Trofimuk; narrated by Grover Gardner) and that, while recording the book, Grover had become so emotionally enmeshed with the text that he actually broke down during the studio sessions. Bronson then said that he had had the same experience while narrating MATTERHORN and, that was what decided it for me. That kind of narrator engagement and response to a story is rare and always something special.

So, I pulled a copy from Blackstone's warehouse and I spent the next couple of weeks listening to one of the best audiobooks I have ever heard, finishing late on a Saturday night. At the beginning of the audio I took the time to draft out a chart of the characters. You can see the Command Structure/List of Characters if you "Look Inside" the book on or you can draft out your own chart within a couple of minutes (I drafted first and compared.) After having written it down, it was pretty much set in my mind. I referred to it once after that to scribble a note about Lt. Col. Simpson (sometimes, Lt. Col. Simpson was referred to as "Big John Six" and other times just as "Big John.")

Anyway, this is why you should listen to MATTERHORN:
  • Excellent writing: From the opening lines to the close of the novel, the author immediately and effectively places the reader/listener in Vietnam, 1969. The imagery is evocative without dipping into superfluous metaphor and, the scenes resonate with physical and psychological detail;
  • Excellent narration: I had one small gripe about the narrator which was that the first three of four times he says the word "gook," he pronounces it to rhyme with "book." The rest of the time, he pronounces the word to rhyme with "kook." Both are correct, but the inconsistency bothered me. The times he pronounced "gook" like "book" I was taken out of the story. But outside of that, I would have to say the narration was flawless. Bronson channeled the characters and the material so effectively that he literally disappeared into the book and the characters spoke (and BTW, "Balki" does not make an appearance in any way, shape or form!)
  • For the veterans: I've read a lot of the customer reviews posted for both the print and audio editions of this title. A lot of Vietnam veterans seem to love this book, clearly believing their story has finally been told. This book is fiction; but clearly it's "true." Without having read the reviews though, you would know it. There is an honesty in the writing that comes through.
  • For everyone else: There's a old adage about not judging a man until you've walked a mile in his shoes. This book forces you to hump 6 clicks in a Marine's boots. This book does what the very best of books do: enables the reader to see another point of view. There's a great scene in the book wherein Jackson, a black Lance Corporal explains to Mellas, a white Second Lieutenant, that he (Jackson) could no more explain what it's like to be black to Mellas than either of them could explain what its like to be in the bush to civilians. The irony is of course, is that Marlantes has explained what's its like to be in the bush. Readers/listeners will feel like they were with Bravo Company every step of the way.
I never know which books are going to deeply resonate with me and when they do I really don't know why. I'm a middle-aged overweight mother in the the Northwest. I have had no military experience and no one in my family served (my father's experiences in WWII are a different kind of story.) Anyway, Matterhorn really affected me. The first night after I had started listening to the audio, I woke up in the middle of the night, more than a little panicky, slightly sweating and attacking the leech on my leg. OK, it was really a Band-Aid, but it never knew what hit it!

After finishing this audiobook, I spent a week still "in the bush" and another week trying to find another audiobook to listen to (after you listen to something this amazing, everything else sounds like dreck!)

Highly recommend to absolutely everyone.


  1. D.E.C. - Great review. I LOVE Bronson Pinchot and Blackstone really produces some quality work.
    I've added this to my TBL pile!

  2. Very good review. I came across this title on recommendations page, but had second thoughts about Bronson Pinchot as a narrator. Your review has dispelled that. This story reminds me of a book I read in the 80's, The 13th Valley by John M. Del Vecchio. It never came to audiobook, but it's worth the time to find and read. Thanks for this, DEC.

  3. Wow! I just took a look over at the product description of THE 13TH VALLEY and I have to say this looks like a real contender to challenge Rick Ayers' idea that MATTERHORN is the best novel about Vietnam ever written:

    Thanks for the "Heads Up" (I've ordered a copy of THE 13TH VALLEY)

  4. Great review! I had to laugh at the leech in the night episode.