An ambitious first novel about the Vietnam War, written over three decades by a Marine veteran of the fight.
Less melodramatic and more realistic than Denis Johnson’s Tree of Smoke, with which it invites comparison, Marlantes’s long but simply structured narrative recounts the unhappy lot of a Marine lieutenant, usually called only Mellas, and the platoon under his command. Stuck in a firebase called Matterhorn, up near the Demilitarized Zone, Mellas, who is handsome, smart, canny and politically astute, if perhaps not a “natural hunter,” finds himself in the unenviable position of having what seems like the entire army of North Vietnam bearing down on the post. The long battle that ensues, framing the book, tests the Marines’ mettle, and it fells many of them. Marlantes, who saw combat, writes with authority on every aspect of Marine life, from the terrible chow (in one fine moment, he describes an improbable meal made of eggs, chocolate, Tabasco sauce and apricots) to the complex rules (“Bullshit, sir!...I’m a fucking squad leader and squad leaders can have stashes”) and the hard realities of Vietnam, from the fragging of unpopular brass and NCOs to death in all kinds of unpleasant ways (“Imagine dying of thirst in a monsoon”). The combat scenes, and there are many, are finely rendered. Overall, the narrative is a little predictable, however, and it offers only a few surprises of character development and plot that can’t be seen coming from afar, including a tense, expertly delivered moment in which Mellas attempts to snipe at an NVA colonel: “Mellas waited as patiently as an animal. Time stopped. Only this one task. Wait for the bastard to turn around so he could see the bullets coming.”
Readable and well written, though not quite in the class of Tim O’Brien, Philip Caputo, Michael Herr, Robert Stone and other top-flight literary chroniclers of the war in Vietnam.