Friday, July 16, 2010


This month I read Matterhorn, a novel thirty-three years in the making by Karl Marlantes. You won't hear about this one on "Reading Rainbow," but the book is excellent, some of the best fiction I've read in a long time.

What impressed me the most about the book is how Marlantes articulates the spiritual struggle of the protagonist, a Marine lieutenant named Waino Mellas.

The author, himself a highly-decorated Marine combat veteran, informs the book with his own Vietnam experience. Marlantes' ability to describe these raw emotions is what makes this novel so brutally powerful. He is also humble and direct about the challenges of telling such a story.

"War is mostly drudgery," Marlantes explained. "Spreading wire and picking scabs and dumb shit like that. How do I write a novel that makes the reader really understand that about war and not bore the hell out of them?"

His words certainly engaged my imagination, so much that the following passage seems less like fiction and more like authentic prayer. I've never read anything quite like it. The scene happens after Mellas accidentally kills a fellow Marine:

There came a moment during the lull when Mellas, lost at the center of the swirling fog, knew beyond any ability to lie to himself that he had, indeed, killed Pollini--and he was overwhelmed by an emptiness that knocked him to his knees. Slumped in his wet hole, cocooned by two flak jackets, he broke. 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. ...

Stripped to a scream, undressed to a cry of pain, he sobbed in anger at God in hoarse words that hurt his throat. He asked for nothing now, nor did he wonder if he'd been bad or good. Such concepts were all part of the joke he'd just discovered. He cursed God directly for the savage joke that had been played on him. And in cursing Mellas for the first time really talked with his God. Then he cried, but his cries were the rage and hurt of a newborn child, at last, however roughly, being taken from the womb. ...

What a great joke--that Mellas would probably get a medal for killing one of his own men. It seemed appropriate that the president would probably get reelected for doing the same thing on a far larger scale. Then a new voice within him started to laugh with God. ... He kept laughing, shaking his head in wonder at the world.

You can find more on Matterhorn by clicking here.

Friday, July 9, 2010

North Country Heart

Late summer, 1999. A typical August afternoon, hot and humid in Upper Michigan's Porcupine Mountains. My best friend and his dad had introduced me to a week of wilderness camping. The three of us, sweaty and tired, had just filed out of the woods and into the van for the long ride home. Then a snare shot from the radio kicked off a song that would reshape my whole spiritual identity.

"How does it feel?" Dylan's voice sang as a chant, as a taunt, as a prayer, as an exaltation all wrapped together, straight into my skull. As if God, and not Dylan, was amused and asking a wondering child, "How does it feel?"

I felt alive. Awake. My own self. The hike through birch and pine had been miles of sudden wild rain, muddy trails, and granite cliffs. Those days encompassed my first long journey alone, without my parents. I'd never carried a heavy pack before, had never walked so far over such stark terrain. My best friend had shown me a leaner, more intimate way of appreciating the world. That sense of empowerment made every sight and smell seem fresh and vivid. And beyond it all, the most powerful impression: the mutable and dark blue Lady of the Lake, Superior.

Dylan himself was born on the shore of that great water, and its unforgiving, surreal nature fused with his art. I was in the very spot where his muse lived, and I could feel the magnetic energy of his lyrics rising like steam off a marsh. Once upon a time, Miss Lonely lived in the thick forests. Napoleon in rags drank from the brooks with his Siamese cat. And the mystery tramp sat on that rocky beach letting no one off the hook without a price. Those characters were as ancient as the North Country itself.

The song had the force of an ore freighter hauling a potent and exhilarating challenge. I was no longer a spectator in life, amused at the bums and the folks just hangin' out. I was a complete unknown committed to my own life's path, responsible for my own success. Dylan, backcountry prophet, made clear that no excuses were acceptable. I had to carry my own gear and hike my own trail. I was an adult.

Over a decade has passed from that revelation in the wilderness, and I have never gotten over it. Like a Rolling Stone, more than anything else I've come across since, redrew the inward map of my spiritual journey. I've listened to Dylan hundreds of times and know his entire canon. I've gone on many long journeys since then, too. But even now, when I hear that song, my life immediately becomes new again. I carry that memory of the North Country with my best friend, listening to Dylan, in my heart. It's my touchstone place for understanding Creation.