SEATTLE — Karl Marlantes has had a life any striver would envy. Successful energy consultant. Father of five. Highly decorated member of the Marine Corps in a brutal theater — Vietnam.
Going further back (pretty far back — Marlantes is 65), the boy from the small town of Seaside, Oregon, was a National Merit Scholar, attended Yale and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford.
There was just one thing. The book — the endlessly revised, much-labored over, nightmare-inducing book.
It all started one day when Marlantes, posted after Vietnam to Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C., had to walk some papers over to the Capitol. He was confronted by a group of anti-war protesters. “A whole bunch of kids were hollering obscenities at me,” he remembers. “I thought: you don’t know who I am. I wanted people to hear our side of the story. ... We’re just normal people here, we just had a different kind of luck.”
So Marlantes set out to tell the story of a terrified 21-year-old soldier in Vietnam. In 1977 he finished his epic novel of the Vietnam War — on a typewriter.
No one would publish it. He kept revising. In the 1980s, no agent would even read it. In the 1990s, he was told to cut it in half and make it about the Gulf War. In the 2000s, same advice — except to switch the story to Afghanistan.
This saga could have ended with vanquished dreams, and many frustrated novelists would believe it. But it’s not that kind of tale. It’s a 65-year-old’s Cinderella story.
Last week, after 33 years of trying for publication, the Woodinville, Wash., resident’s book hits stores all over the country. “Matterhorn” (Atlantic Monthly Press/El Leon Literary Arts), has received rave reviews. It’s a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick and has become a cause celebre among independent booksellers. Originally published by a small press, El Leon Literary Arts, “Matterhorn” was slimmed down and “speeded up a bit” by the editors at Atlantic, says Marlantes. He was delighted when a Portland bookstore sold 100 copies of the earlier version; now the numbers are likely to be much larger.
Set in 1969, “Matterhorn” is the story of a group of 20-something soldiers going through the Vietnam version of hell; driving toward an impossible target, flogged on by a clueless commander. Marlantes says that the long delay in publication helped the book, as he looked back on his own 20-something self with more sympathetic eyes. “When you’re 25, you don’t really know what’s going on in your 25-year-old head. But when you’re 55… It’s a way better book.”
The book has given Marlantes a platform to speak on some timeless issues. He thinks that in some ways the current military, which relies on volunteers instead of a draft, is a disaster for the segment of our society most involved with it: “The families of these people are being asked to do two, three combat tours. The fighters are falling apart and the families are falling apart.”
But he feels good about the way things turned out. “It’s that feeling when, you’re climbing the stairs and you’re not aware there’s not a step any more. It feels good. I’m done.”