Bloody Crimes, Matterhorn

Posted on December 1, 2010 by

A few weeks ago a tweet led me to Amazon’s list of the Top 100 Books of 2010.

Which led me to buy Bloody Crimes, which tells the story of the final days of two presidencies: the abrupt death and long funeral of Abraham Lincoln, and the flight from Richmond of Jefferson Davis of the Confederate States of America.

This is a pop history of a certain type: it takes the train journey of Lincoln’s coffin as it wound through the eastern U.S. to Springfield Illinois and highlights the similarities and differences with Davis’s stop-and-start journey southward as the Confederacy collapsed around him.

I know just enough Walt Whitman to have known Lincoln’s train had borne his body westward,but the sheer scale of the hoopla was new to me, and there’s always something delicious in that kind of reading: Holy Cow! Really? How much bunting did they drape on NYC?. The thematic tying together of the two journeys worked nicely, but when I think of examples of this kind of intertwined yet parallel story, I think of Eric Larsen’s The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. This, though it’s good, isn’t quite as compelling as that. (It’s an unfair comparison, perhaps, because Larsen is so very good, and his subject matter in that book so deliciously dramatic and improbable.)

Final verdict: Bloody Crimes is a good and quick read for those with an already-fixed interest in its subject matter.

In addition to buying Bloody Crimes, I used the Amazon List to generate my usual end of the year monster pile of requests from the local public library. The first thing I chose to read from the borrowed stack was Matterhorn: A Novel of the Vietnam War, by Karl Marlantes.

Most of my Vietnam War reading is nonfiction, but a lot of it has the same ambience as this novel: accounts by people who fought in the jungle, detailed descriptions of the miserable conditions and various stupidities of war. But fiction lets one turn the screws on the drama that much higher, letting one create a more seamless effect without having to account for drama-disrupting truths or weird inconsistencies.

Matterhorn has this quality of artistic wholeness. It paints an unforgettable and grim picture. Its prose is functional and transparent, its characters convincing, its story inevitable and heartbreaking.

Novels and movies about war tend to also have a lot of soul-searching. Characters plumb their navels, looking at big picture questions: why do humans do this? And the small stuff, too: how did I end up here? What will be lost if I die? This is a story element that is most likely to strike a false note with me–Thin Red Line, for example, made me gag. But Matterhorn is very consistent about being in the heads of young men. There’s no mature philosophizing here: these are teen boys, groping with things that are far beyond them.

I don’t have a lot of people in my immediate circle who’d be drawn to either of the above books, but if U.S. military history is your kind of thing at all, Matterhorn is especially well done.

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