About four-fifths of the way through Karl Marlantes’s epic Matterhorn, his protagonist – and we assume the closest voice we have to that of Marlantes himself – seems finally, almost mercifully, to have died: ‘he sank to the ground, giving in to the blackness; the sounds of the firing and confusion whirled away from him. Dying was a huge relief. For the first time, he felt safe.’ It is testament to the power of Matterhorn and the brutal punch of Marlantes’s writing that the reader barely questions the idea of dying being a huge relief. After 500 pages of humping and fighting and living and dying with Lieutenant Mellas and the marines (invariably, hauntingly, referred to as ‘kids’) of Bravo Company (1/24 USMC) on their increasingly futile and nightmarish operations just south of the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Vietnam at the height of that conflict, it is only too obvious why dying might be a relief.
Marlantes, however, is not so generous to his ‘kids’; the conflict is relentless and indiscriminate. Mellas is not dead, merely stunned and minutes later scrambling up the muddy, eponymous Matterhorn in a frantic attempt to get out of range of the grenades being rolled from above by the