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VJ Books Presents Author Karl Marlantes!

Author Karl MarlantesA graduate of Yale University and a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Karl Marlantes served as a Marine in Vietnam, where he was awarded the Navy Cross, the Bronze Star, two Navy Commendation Medals for valor, two Purple Hearts, and ten air medals. He lives in rural Washington State.

Marlantes, who now lives in Woodinville, Wash., joined the Marines after graduating from Seaside High School. He first went to Yale and then to Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar before finding himself in Vietnam in 1968 as an inexperienced lieutenant with a Marine rifle company operating near the border with Laos.

It took Karl Marlantes more than 30 years to write his Vietnam war novel, Matterhorn, and to get it published. 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.

After 33 years of trying for publication, the Woodinville resident's book hits stores all over the country. Matterhorn has received rave reviews. It's a Barnes &; Noble Discover Great New Writers pick and has become a cause c_l¸bre among independent booksellers. Originally published by a small press, El Leon Literary Arts, Marlantes was delighted when a Portland bookstore sold 100 copies of the earlier version; now the numbers are likely to be much larger.

Fire support base Matterhorn and other locales are inventions of the author, but are only a few kilometers as the chopper flies from the Rockpile, Khe Sanh and other very real battlefields of that war. It was at the Rockpile in March 1969 that Marlantes won the Navy Cross -- the highest of his several decorations -- for rallying the remnants of two platoons and leading an assault up a hill strongly defended by North Vietnamese Army troops dug into fortified bunkers, four of which Marlantes destroyed. After gaining the top, he set up a defensive perimeter and -- realizing that all other officers and sergeants were wounded -- refused to be evacuated, despite serious wounds.

That action forms the basis the harrowing battle scene when Mellas and the Marines of Bravo Company assault a fortified hill. Those chapters can't be put down, and Marlantes brilliantly captures the confusion, fear, anger and deafening noise of battle. Marlantes' experience informs every word of this big book, his first novel, and makes it the most visceral of all Vietnam novels, with its meditations on leeches and how you never feel them attaching, or that those infrequently-issued fresh uniforms are quickly ruined by pus and blood from jungle-rot sores. At the end, Mellas loses his college-bred cynicism and feels a vast love for those who've fought and died at his side, a love that he knows will never be equaled.

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." 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."

(Seattle Times, OregonLive.com)