Ever since I stayed up all night to finish it and then write a letter to a friend about it, I’ve cherished Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. There are those who think it has flaws – that there very few apparently minor characters, that the women do not come off well. Still, I think as an investigation of the Vietnam War and its aftermath, it remains a structurally fantastic piece that has more to say about storytelling than many books that have tried much harder.
When I heard about Matterhorn and its popularity, I was intrigued. Could this book add something to the conversation? Be a kind of companion for the O’Brien? Replace it?
After 566 pages, I can say that the answer is definitively no. I mean, I have to trust Marlantes, as a vet, to get the battle scenes right. But he’s got more than that on his mind. The exploration of the racial politics in the novel (criticized as being absent from the O’Brien) rings completely false here. There are no insights or interesting moments – just cartoons.
After I was about halfway through, I started to wonder whether Mellas, the heroic soldier, was a kind of stand-in for the author. The white man who connects with the blacks, the fresh solider who learns the cynicism of the vet, the soldier who watches everyone else around him die and manages to survive, the foolish one who volunteered for this war.
There are some interesting moments in the first half – as Mellas tries to negotiate the small moments, the small tests he faces on his way to becoming a leader. Aside from an always noble but often inappropriate temper, he succeeds.
Skip this one; read the O’Brien again.