The Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong

Armstrong subtitles this probing, thoughtful work, My Climb out of Darkness. For me, this 2004 work is both a reminder and a mirror image of The Seven Story Mountain. Merton’s book was about his disenchantment with the secular world and his search for spiritual fulfillment in a monastery. Armstrong’s book is about her disenchantment with the spiritual life of nuns and her search for fulfillment in the secular world.

Both of these works have their immediate appeal to me because they are personal stories. The emphasis here is on Armstrong’s struggle to discover a career and her relationship to the people around her, all within the psychological strait jacket she is trying to escape from. Yes, both stories are told within a spiritual context, but it is not about their spiritual life itself, but about how their spiritual life intersects with their secular life—granted, the two authors are going in the opposite direction.

Armstrong enters the convent at age seventeen on a spiritual quest to find God. She leaves seven years later “having suffered a mild break-down, obscurely broken and damaged,” which is “nobody’s fault.” She says nobody’s fault because, although it was the time of Vatican II, the sisters at her nunnery resisted many of the Council’s changes, training her to be strictly obedient, to keep her eyes downcast, and never to think for herself.

So when she re-enters the secular world, she finds it to be a changed world of war, youthful rebellion, and sexual revolution, often expressed in loud music and energetic dancing—in short, a world difficult to adjust to, a world of culture shock. She confronts it as a shy, reserved woman who cannot think creatively. But she does discover T.S. Eliot’s poem, Ash Wednesday, and it is from this poem that comes the title, The Spiral Staircase, a metaphor, as Jane Lampman says, for “spiritual progress that seems to go in circles while, in fact, moving upward into the light.”

Highly intelligent, Armstrong continues as a student of literature at Oxford, after she is released from her vows; but she finds no one, even Catholics, who understand her difficulty in adjusting to this new world. Moreover, she still draws her literary insights from others, meaning she cannot evaluate literary works on her own. The nuns had trained her to seek deeper insights only in terms of higher states of prayer—and she had always failed.

As a nun, perhaps in rebellion, Armstrong began having fainting spells, and these continue after she leaves the order. Finally, confronted by abnormal visions that fill her with horror, she is sent to a psychiatrist. But such visions of an abnormal reality also start her thinking about God and wondering if He were real. After all, she had never got close to Him in the nunnery.

As a doctoral candidate, Armstrong takes a room with an atheist couple, the Harts, who have a teenage autistic son, Jacob. She cares for him in exchange for her room, and they quickly relate to one another. And yet, she cannot relate to others. She even cuts down on eating, telling herself it is to save money; but her psychiatrist insists the panic attacks she has are a symptom of repression, that she has built an ivory tower around herself, and he believes the source to be in her upbringing.

Meanwhile, that tower had also locked her away from a belief in God. And yet one day she is asked by the atheistic parents to take Jacob to mass, thinking he will take to its ritual and be comforted by the community worship. And Jacob does love it, and insists she take him there regularly.

But Armstrong’s life is suddenly turned upside down. She swallows sleeping pills and ends up in a hospital. She is 27, and it is a cry for help. Rescued by he Harts from a psychiatric ward, she recovers. And then, inspired by a lecture on Ash Wednesday, she realizes that she cannot undo the past, that she must now find her own way. That way, however, unlike Eliot’s, is to move further and further away from God.

Armstrong is telling many stories here. There are her relationships with the Harts, including Jacob; with fellow students, like Jane and Charlotte, and the faculty at Oxford; and with a sickly nun, Rebeca, from her past life. There are also her mental issues, including her sessions with her psychiatrist, Dr. Piet. And there is her inability to relate to God. She weaves all of these elements into a rich and fascinating self-portrait.

Now, Armstrong’s life changes. She moves to London and takes a job at London University while she finishes her thesis. But that thesis is rejected because her Oxford examiner is biased against her close reading of literature. There is a scandal, but nothing can be done.

And yet, Armstrang feels suddenly liberated. With nothing to prove, she begins to think on her own. And then two remarkable events become quite moving. First, she collapses again, and is diagnosed, finally, with having epilepsy. This fills her with joy, for she now knows her mental issues are physical, not emotional or a threat to her sanity. And it liberates her further, for she no longer needs to avoid people for fear she may have a seizure in front of them. She can live a normal life. She has a future.

Second, Armstrong becomes godmother to Jacob at his baptism, and this unbeliever sees the son of atheists receiving the sacrament with joy. She sees the irony, too, but the reader wonders if it heralds more. For she also rooms with a Jewish girlfriend, who introduces her to the relaxed rituals of Jewish worship.

At this point, Armstrong refers briefly to a love life that this reader had wondered about. She calls herself a “failed heterosexual,” because she has had a number of affairs, all brief, she says, and all unsatisfactory, not worthy of mention. One has to agree with her that they do not belong in this book that is a memoir of her internal life. But the brief reference is necessary.

During six years of teaching at a wealthy girls’ school in London, Armstrong’s life takes a new turn. A teacher friend Sally persuades her to keep a diary, and the result is the author’s first book, Through the Narrow Gate, about studying to be a nun and then leaving the convent. The book is a critical success, and when a paper edition is issued, she is invited to give a talk for a proposed Channel 4 series, and urged to treat any subject that is “punchy and controversial.” She gives a spontaneous and striking talk on women in the Church that resonates with me. “This is my body,” she quotes and then remarks how little the Church has valued the body, especially the female body, and so failed “to integrate the sexual with the divine.”

This, in turn, leads to a six-part television series on St. Paul, for which she travels to Israel, to the holy sites that she has heard so much about. It is a remarkably evocative visit that leads to an emotional connection to her former faith. In addition, Paul becomes to her not a typical male figure from the New Testament but a human being. She comes to like this man whom she originally intended to expose as a founder of the Church she now despises.

But even more significant, she grasps the heart of the Jewish faith, and its being a precursor to Christianity. After the television series succeeds, she is asked to write a series on the Crusades. But as she studies the Moslem faith, the television money runs out. And then she is suddenly inspired. ”For three years, I had steeped myself in the deadly hostility that had separated Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Why not study something they held in common? The Abrahamic faiths worshiped the same God, for instance. Why not study the way they all had seen this God over the centuries?”

And so, she begins her next major book, The History of God. Now able to see the other’s viewpoint, as well as to bring her own original thinking to the subject, she focuses on her own inner life. And concludes that religion does not bring us the meaning of life but is the means “to discover how to be fully human.” That: “Men and women have a potential for the divine, and are not complete unless they realize it within themselves.”

But in the middle of writing this book, she is struck by the negative reaction of people to the fatwa against Salman Rushdie, and their claim that the Islamic faith is a faith of violence. And so she writes a corrective life of Mohammed, revealing that he preached, like the Jews, a faith not of belief but of action, a faith of physical prostration and human compassion.

Back with The History of God, she revels in being alone with her books—and falls in love with her subject. Studying literature has helped her see that “theology, like religion itself, was really an art form…Like all art, theology is an attempt to express the inexpressible.” This is be her vocation.

Her book concludes that the theologians of all three faiths reached similar conclusions. “None of them had a monopoly of truth.” And the basis for that truth was to have compassion for others, “to feel with” the other, to understand why they felt or thought as they did.

And then the author reaches the most profound truth of her book. Does this mean I believe in God, she asks. And she both ducks the question and answers it. God is not a being, she says, not an unseen reality, because God is beyond our world, is on an entirely different level of existence. As Cantwell Smith showed her, she says, “faith was the cultivation of a conviction that life had some meaning and value…an attitude also evoked by great art.”

And: “The one and only test of a valid religion,” she writes, “is that it leads to practical compassion.” And again, “Compassion was the litmus test for the prophets of Israel, for the rabbis of the Talmud, for Jesus, for Paul, and for Mohammed, not to mention Confusius, Lao-tzu, the Buddha, or the sages of the Upanishads.”

God cannot be reached through reason, she concludes. He transcends either personality or objective fact. Whereas, the practice of compassion can “bring us directly into the presence of God….It dethrones the ego from the center of our lives and puts others there, breaking down the carapace of selfishness that holds us back from the experience of the sacred. And it gives us ecstasy…”

“The inner dynamic of all these great religious convictions can work effectively,’ she continues, “only if you do not close your mind and heart to other human beings.” And a friend tells her, “You are constantly living in the dimension of the sacred. You are absorbed in holiness all the time.”

To sum up, this is a personal book and a profound book. It works, first, because the author takes us through a series of defeats, first the convent, then her health problems, then the failed thesis, then the dissatisfaction as a high school teacher, then her solitariness and her inability to relate to others, then the failed television series. This is a confused and struggling human being we are reading about.

But the memoir works primarily because it is a story of the author’s search to find God. It is about her internal life, along with her external life. And it is unique because she finds a different God than most of us seek, a transcendent God beyond our level of existence, a God that is revealed through her compassionate relations with those around her as well as in the aspirations within her. She learns the organized spiritual life where she first sought Him actually closed down her brilliant mind rather than opened it up.

This is not a work that the orthodox of any religion would be comfortable with. But it forces us to see the real world around us, the world we share, a world of searching, and of personal failure and frustration; and through it, we become aware of our own often superficial reaction to that world, a reaction that focuses on us rather than on others. And on our relationship to what we call a personal God that, she says, conceals the truth of a relationship that is beyond our power to conceive.

Every reader should be grateful that Karen Armstrong has bared her soul to them, for she crystallizes our frequent inability to understand the meaning of this life we live. What she has done here is to show us the spiritual world beyond religion, a view that will not please everyone but does show that that spiritual world is out there, even if it may be difficult for some to find that elusive being called God. (February, 2015)

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Life after Life, by Kate Atkinson

This 2013 work is a strange novel, a marvelous novel, a puzzling novel. As the title suggests, it is about its heroine Ursula Todd dying and then not dying. It is also about premonitions she has, as a child, about others dying, and her efforts to prevent that from happening. Her parents send her to a psychiatrist at age ten, a man who introduces the idea of reincarnation, which Ursula and the reader rejects, for reincarnation does not apply precisely to her situation. But the psychiatrist also introduces the idea of the circularity of time, and while this does not fit Ursula’s life, it does fit the construction of this novel.

Ursula is the daughter of Sylvie and Hugh Todd, he a doting father, she a snobbish mother. Ursula has an older brother Maurice, aloof and supercilious; an older sister Pamela who is bossy as a child but becomes Ursula best friend as an adult; and younger brothers Teddy, who is her favorite brother and will join the air force, and Jimmy, less significant, who will leave England after the war. They represent the strong base of this novel, an upper middleclass family that represents the heart of English society.

But the reality of this family shifts from the moment Ursula is born. Because Ursula dies, strangled by her own umbilical cord, but then does not. She falls off a roof and dies, but then does not. Influenza kills her and a faithful servant, but then does not. A neighborhood girl is raped and killed, but then, with Ursula’s help, is not. Ursala herself is killed in the World War II, but then is not. What is going on here? It is not easy to determine, for the author jumps back and forth in time as she blends Ursula’s disruptive life and modern British history.

Then come three dramatic moments that do not seem to belong, that even seem a misjudgment by the author. First, Ursula is raped at age sixteen, by an American who seems to exist only to be a tool of the author. And she becomes pregnant. But that life is replaced by another, in which Ursula marries an abusive schoolteacher. She flees, but he tracks her down and attacks both her and her brother Teddy. Darkness falls, which is the repeated sign of her dying, but we never read the consequences of that attack, not on Teddy and not on the schoolteacher. The event fades into non-existence.

Then, in an alternate life, Ursula meets a boy on a visit to Germany, falls in love, and remains in Germany throughout World War II. Here, Atkinson suggests, through Ursula and her alternate self, parallels between how one experiences the bombing of Berlin and how one experiences the bombing of London. Indeed, the London blitz scenes are the most memorable in the book—and not simply because Ursula dies once in a cellar, then dies while trying to save people in that cellar, and finally lives on when a dog’s presence, which led to her second death, now leads to her survival.

And at this point, this reader realized two things. Atkinson was through this one family trying to convey mid-twentieth century English history; and, even more important, she was dramatizing how a single event, a single decision in one’s life, can change that life dramatically. (Do I subscribe to this because my marriage, my own life, was so changed?) There is at the end even an explanation for a mysterious opening scene, in which Ursula seems poised in 1930 to kill Adolf Hitler—with speculation about how that could have changed modern European history.

At the end of her novel, the author attempts to tidy up her many divergent stories. Just as “Darkness fell” heralds the frequent deaths of Ursula, “Practice makes perfect” heralds some of these reversals of death. A near-death experience of Ursula at the beach had followed her actual death, and now this event is tidied up by becoming the drowning of the handicapped and illegitimate child of her Aunt Izzy. Or is this an example of a past drama altering one’s memory? In fact, which event is real? Then Ursula tells a lie to save the family servant Bridget from going to London to catch influenza and die with her lover Clarence. (Ursula, in one instance, had failed to achieve this when she pushed the girl down some stairs.) This recapitulation is also when the psychiatrist asks ten-year-old Ursula to draw something, and she draws a snake swallowing its tail—representing, he says, “the circularity of the universe.” Aha!

This section is also when we learn Ursula is a good shooter, which hearkens back to her confrontation with Hitler (although not how she got in that situation). We also learn why a neighbor Nancy died on one level, due to Ursula’s actions, as earlier we learned why she did not die, also due to Ursula’s actions. Finally, the novel has a happy ending in its next-to-last chapter, an ending that seems unnecessary. A character everyone thinks has died in the war has not died, and is reunited with a lover. Yes, it illustrates the uncertainty of life, as well as of war, but it seems unnecessary—mainly, I think, because we never see the consequences of that return to life.

Speaking of circularity, there are also the dogs in the life of Ursula and her family. They keep dying and then being replaced. Not always, but many are also given the name of Lucky. Their dying and “rebirth” as another dog surely is intended as a parallel to both Ursula’s shifting life and the novel’s construction.

A major plus of this novel, which helps the reader accept this English version of magic realism is Atkinson’s style. It is reminiscent of Muriel Spark, and early Waugh, in its clear, aloof, arbitrary, witty, godlike treatment of the lives and the fates of these characters. Not to be overlooked, either, are the relationships established among the many characters, whether within Ursula’s family, including with her naughty Aunt Izzy, with the family servants, or with Ursula’s various lovers, air wardens, and German friends, even Eva Braun.

This is one of those rare novels in which I did not mind trying to puzzle out Ursula’s life, the reality of its events, or the meaning of this novel. Nor was I frustrated that the novel offered no clear answers. Not why her power to foresee calamity faded after childhood. Not why she has the power to die and return. And not what the power of recreating history means.

This was for Atkinson, I believe, an exercise in the imagination. What if one could die and come back? What if one could affect the lives of others? What might a novelist do with that? Atkinson has seemed interested in her other novels with the idea of connections. Here, the connection is with destiny. Not, what happens to us after death, but what if our destiny in life changes, or what if we could affect that change.

As Francine Prose sums up in her excellent Times review: “Atkinson sharpens our awareness of the apparently limitless choices and decisions that a novelist must make on every page, and of what is gained and lost when the consequences of these choices are, like life, singular and final.”

Atkinson herself has written: “People always ask you what a book is ‘about’ and I generally make something up as I have no idea what a book is about (it’s ‘about’ itself) but if pressed I think I would say Life After Life is about being English (on reflection, perhaps that’s what all my books are about). Not just the reality of being English but also what we are in our own imaginations.”

Atkinson has explained that she was born after World War II, and her family rarely discussed that era; but that she intended here to write a novel about that war. And that the “dark, bleeding heart” of that novel would be the blitz. In this she certainly succeeded, because the lengthy treatment of Ursula’s work as an air warden is the most memorable section of this work. But Atkinson also realized that in order to write about someone in the war she had to give her a back story—which in this case turned out to be the heart of the novel. And its theme of worldly life after worldly death certainly reflects the wishful thinking that takes place after any war—as one recalls its senseless and horrible death toll.

One should also note that Atkinson’s next novel, A God in Ruins, is to be about Ursula’s brother Teddy, who is shot down during World War II. He was Ursula’s favorite brother, and apparently of the author as well. One awaits learning whether Atkinson will explore that war further, or whether she has something else in mind—even, again, the theme of endless death. Indeed, one wonders if a final, incongruous appearance of Teddy in this novel was written in order to set up this next 2015 work. One also wonders if the word God in the title has any significance. It would seem doubtful, based on the spiritual beliefs held in this novel. But…

To sum up, this is a novel about life, not about death. And a novel about this world, not the next. It works because of its solid family portrait and its vivid capture of the historic context, including but not limited to World War II. It certainly entices me to read more of Atkinson’s work. For the degree of control she has over her characters, which turned me off in Case Histories, here she uses to her advantage, as she integrates it into the structure of this excellent work. (February, 2015)

Matterhorn, by Karl Marlantes

This 2010 work is a magnificent novel, the best war novel I have read in decades. It is equal to the best of Mailer and Jones. It is the novel of Vietnam. It reportedly took the author 30 years to write this novel—far longer, that is, than it took Hemingway to write his about World War I. This was undoubtedly because of the scope of this novel; and the result, for me, surpasses even A Farewell to Arms, since that novel was more concerned with the experience of one soldier. In fact, this novel surpasses, for me, even Mailer and Jones, because of its emphasis on man’s humanity,

Matterhorn tells here the experience of a Marine company, Bravo Company, and a second lieutenant and platoon leader Waino Mellas. Indeed, it comprises in the adventures of this one company a capsule of the entire Vietnamese war. Even while author Marlantes reduced his manuscript from 1,600 pages to about 600, he narrowed in on representative exploits. And so, we first meet Bravo Company out on patrol, not knowing where the enemy is or when and how it might attack. We immediately grasp the uncertainty, the fear, the silence, the darkness, and the moral and physical discomfort of fighting in a strange land.

This is also the story of many men in Bravo Company. Of First Lieutenant Fitch, in charge of the company; of Second Lieutenant Ted Hawke, all of 22, second in command; of second lieutenants Mellas, Goodwin and Kendall, in charge of its three platoons; of its squad leaders, corporals Connolly, Fisher, Jacobs, Jancowitz, and Jackson; of Corporal Mallory who has mysterious headaches that no one can diagnose; of Sergeant Cassidy, the artillery gunner, who antagonizes the blacks; of Private Vancouver who always wants to be on point, the most dangerous assignment; of Private Arran and his scout dog Pat; of privates China and Henry, black Marines who duel to become the leader of mutinous blacks; and finally of the devious and ambitious battalion officers, Lt. Colonel Simpson and Major Blakely, whose mission is to kill NVAs, North Vietnamese Army regulars, rather than to occupy Vietnamese territory.

Bringing strategic perspective to the extensive field action are Simpson and Blakely, back at headquarters, who push Bravo in order to earn promotions for themselves, and who realize the way to do so is to probe for and kill those enemy troops. But then comes an irrational decision from Saigon that is symptomatic of the military bungling to come. After Bravo has established defensive positions atop Matterhorn Mountain, it is ordered to abandon them, because headquarters generals want to impress visiting politicians by shifting troops to a distant attack at Cam Lo.

Bravo’s new mission is to trek through the jungle in the novel’s first dramatic sequence. It is a powerful one, as men we have met begin to die, sometimes horribly, such as from a malarial disease or a mauling by a tiger at night. The new orders prompt Bravo to probe bamboo forests and elephant grass, then plow through river canyons and climb high cliffs, all the time being told to exaggerate body counts as its soldiers search for an NVA ammunition dump whose position is a vague point on a map. And, after they succeed, their gung-ho commanders send these exhausted men on another forced march, this time to establish an artillery outpost on a distant hill.

Thus, Bravo confronts a two-week hike, the first half on short rations and the second half with both no food and no sleep, all the while headquarters demanding that they move faster. And their horror is compounded by carrying the decaying body killed by that tiger, plus black soldiers planning to revolt against the discrimination they feel.

This is where this novel begins to dig deeper than mere warfare. Because we grow to understand the field officers’ loyalty to the men of their company, and the enlisted men’s loyalty to each other and to their mission. We realize that this novel is about more than war, about more than the trauma of Vietnam. It is about the impact on these human beings of fighting in a strange world in which the enemy lurks behind every leaf, or is hidden in the night. It is about the politics of getting along with one’s superiors, which Fitch and Mellas learn to do but not Hawke—and which the black Marines also fail to do. And, for all of them, it is about the dream of home.

The humanizing of Mellas continues as he volunteers for a dangerous patrol before leaving the artillery outpost. He wounds an NVA, only to feel guilt because he cannot kill the enemy soldier, instead leaving him to suffer. Complexity increases when they return to headquarters, and the black soldiers force the transfer of a belligerent Cassidy for his own safety, then nearly riot in a movie theatre. Also, Mallory, the black private, is back with his headaches; and he attacks, in frustration, a doctor who cannot cure him.

Mellas’ reaction to headquarters life includes getting drunk with his fellow officers, all trying to forget that new orders will again send them into the bush. And when it comes, they are ordered to helicopter out to save a reconnaissance team outnumbered by the NVA. The initial mission succeeds, but Simpson and Blakely need more NVA dead, and so order Bravo to attack Helicopter Hill and Matterhorn. And the irony, of course, is that the US had earlier abandoned these hills after building strong defenses there.

Despite a lack of surprise, of superior numbers, of artillery support, the lieutenant colonel orders the attack, thinking that if Bravo gets into trouble, it will be re-enforced and the NVA body count will rise. The result is the major and climactic two-part battle of the novel, a battle in which many of the Marines are killed, Marines whom both Mellas and we the readers have come to know. It is a painful reading experience, but perhaps not truly moving because it is described so precisely, so clinically.

In the first phase, Mellas betrays mixed motivations, as he first charges out of a safe position to join Bravo in its attack on Helicopter Hill, and then bargains for a bronze star recommendation if he can save Pollini, a wounded private. But in trying to save him, he fires his rifle over Pollini’s head and later thinks he might have killed this man by accident. The sense of guilt hangs over him a long while after the hill is taken.

But with 13 US troops dead and 40 wounded, and only 10 NVA killed, the colonel needs more NVA bodies. So he orders an attack on Matterhorn itself, not knowing how many enemy troops are there, and knowing fog prevents US supplies coming in or the wounded being evacuated. After the attack fails, supplies do arrive and some are evacuated, but the fog returns, and only 97 men are left to continue the fight.

That night, the Marines are surrounded, and Mellas thinks he is going to die. This prompts him to think of God and death and fate, and the irony of fate. “He was the butt of a cruel joke. God had given him life and must have laughed as Mellas used it to kill Pollini, to get a piece of ribbon to show proof of his worth. And it was his worth that was the joke.” Later: “He cursed God directly for the savage joke that had been played on him. And in that cursing Mellas for the first time really talked with his God.”

Overall, the NVA is moving three regiments up three valleys from Laos into South Vietnam. A weakened Bravo Company, low on water and ammunition, is the only US force in its way. Fog continues to prevent supplies and re-enforcements, and relief companies are a two-day hike away. A discussion of racism at this point seems meant to mirror race relations back home, to underline the sacrifices of blacks in Vietnam, to remind the reader of the enemy being of another race, and finally to stress the humanity of everyone that is fighting in Vietnam. These intervals give texture to the Vietnam war but also humanity to the novel’s characters. Even Simpson and Blakely, in fact, are given their moments of self-knowledge, of humanity.

At this point, the puppet strings of author Marlantes are faintly visible. For Hawke, Bravo’s former executive officer now back at headquarters, organizes supplies, pleads for pilots, and joins a helicopter relief of his old company, bringing in 40 men and new ammo. Yet his effort is presented so naturally, and he is so sincere, that it works.

Bravo is ordered to attack Matterhorn with these re-enforcements in order to, in the colonel’s eyes, restore company pride. But things still go wrong. The fog clears, but US planes miss their target. Nevertheless, Mellas stands, shaking, and walks up hill toward enemy lines. Others follow, surprising him with their respect of his leadership. But as he is pinned down and then wounded twice, Mellas decides that the NVA are never going to quit fighting, and he sees no sense in their attacking and killing each other. It is the novel’s one direct anti-Vietnam statement.

As Mellas, blind in one eye, awaits medical evacuation, he decides that by killing the enemy, who have people back home who care for them, he has participated in evil, and that without such caring there would be no evil. “The jungle wasn’t evil. It was indifferent. So, too, was the world. Evil, then, must be the negation of something man has added to the world. Ultimately, it was caring about something that made the world liable to evil. Caring. And then the caring gets torn asunder. Everybody dies, but not everybody cares.” It is such thoughts that add richness to this novel, that stretch it beyond the level of other works of warfare.

Mellas is evacuated to a hospital ship, where he encounters regimental discipline but also a sympathetic nurse, a nurse who recognizes the humanity in him. For me, this connection between two human beings, my soft spot, results in the most moving chapter in this novel.

Back in headquarters, Lieutenant Fitch, the company commander, is transferred, and Lieutenant Hawke is given a bronze star and made company commander. But then a dummy grenade is tossed by black Marines, and Bravo troops are ordered to give up all their arms. The dramatic repercussions of this act create the novel’s final impact, but Mellas keeps silent about the perpetrators because of his loyalty to the company as a whole, and his desire to keep it as an effective unit.

The violent deaths that follow help to round off this novel, but they seem originated by the author as much as by the rebellious black troops who have been a presence throughout the novel. Marlantes then lends substance to his novel by concluding with a three-page chapter in which Mellas muses: “He knew there could be no meaning to someone who was dead. Meaning came out of living, Meaning could come only from his choices and actions. Meaning was made, not discovered. He saw that he alone could make [a friend’s] death meaningful by choosing what [that friend] had chosen, the company. Things he’d want before—power, prestige—now seemed empty, and their pursuit endless….he would not look for answers in the past or future. Painful events would always be painful. The dead are dead, forever.”

This is one message of this novel, a message that takes it beyond a novel about war. But there are two other messages in the final chapter. When the soldiers chant that if each one’s death is good enough for that person, it is also good enough for them, they are cohering as one unit. (And the races as well?) Meanwhile, Mellas recognizes that both he and they have been like shadows passing across a landscape of mountains and valleys, changing the pattern of things but leaving nothing itself changed.

Karl Marlantes is a highly decorated veteran of the war in Vietnam. One senses that his experience in Vietnam filled the rest of his life, as he put all of himself into this work. His thoughts about life and death, about God and fate, about caring and meaning certainly suggest this. As a result, this would appear to be the only novel that he will ever write, which probably satisfied him at the moment of its publication. On the other hand, there might well be an editor who one day will persuade him—or his heirs—that another novel (or novelette) might be found in those 1,000 manuscript pages that were deleted from this work. If such a work is found that will stand on its own, I will not begrudge its publication. I think may be quite good. (February, 2015)