Pardon the pun, but Roxana Robinson’s new novel, “Sparta,” which takes us deep inside the troubled head of a Marine returning from four years of active duty in Iraq, really is a tour de force. Robinson, whose varied bibliography ranges from a biography of Georgia O’Keeffe to her preceding novel, “Cost,” about a family dealing with a son’s heroin addiction, surprises us again with the unexpected subject.
“Sparta” is a novel with a mission — which in a lesser writer’s hands could spell its doom. But Robinson manages to convey the difficulties of a warrior returning to society and dramatize how we fail our veterans without reducing her story to a polemic. She pulls this off by expertly deploying three literary weapons: emotional insight, moral nuance and intellectual depth.
Robinson has created a character to whom even liberal, antiwar Easterners can relate. Conrad Farrell is a classics major at Williams College whose thesis is on the ancient Greek warrior culture of Sparta. When he announces his intention to join the Marines in the spring of 2001, his parents are aghast — even though the country is not at war. “Their family was bookish and liberal, not martial and authoritarian,” Robinson writes. But Conrad insists that he wants “to do something that has consequences. This is the biggest challenge I know.”
Fast-forward to 2006. Conrad is headed home to his family’s lovely old farmhouse in Katonah, N.Y. But “he wasn’t the person they were expecting to meet,” and “he didn’t know how to change himself back.” That, in a nutshell, is the returning warrior’s predicament.
By embedding herself in 26-year-old Conrad’s point of view, Robinson brings the tolls of war up close. She captures the terrors of flashbacks, insomnia, headaches, panic attacks, impotence, inchoate rage and suicidal thoughts — all symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Although no longer in danger, Conrad finds it impossible to let down his guard. He’s leery of crowds and windows. He flies into a terrifying rage when a woman’s handbag knocks into him in a crowded restaurant.
Unable to penetrate Conrad’s armor, his increasingly alarmed family and girlfriend keep asking, “How are you really?” But he finds it impossible to talk about the Iraqi children murdered in their beds or the member of his platoon trapped in a burning Humvee whose doors are welded shut by the heat of an improvised explosive device — never mind his mounting doubts about the mission.
Robinson replays these horrors in a torturous loop. While it is remarkable how many ways she finds to describe panic attacks — “hovering over him like a tornado funnel,” as if on perpetual night guard duty — her portrait of PTSD is so relentless that it occasionally threatens to overwhelm not just her character but her novel.
Conrad feels his platoon’s absence “like a phantom limb” and tries to keep in e-mail touch with his men. But he holds that Marines don’t complain, and so he pushes himself to prepare for graduate school despite his escalating despair. He quickly wears out his welcome at his girlfriend’s and sister’s New York apartments.
As she prepared to write this novel, Robinson talked to a number of Iraq war veterans and read Sebastian Junger’s “War,” Dexter Filkins’s “The Forever War” and Anthony Swofford’s “Jarhead,” among others. Her explanation of the mishandled early missions in Fallujah and the clash between the long-ruling minority Sunnis and the majority Shiites is as clear as any I’ve read. So, too, is her fascinating primer on the severe and ultimately doomed warrior culture of Sparta, which provides an underlying cautionary tale for her book.
But it’s Robinson’s portrait of the Veterans Affairs system that is most devastating. When Conrad becomes desperate enough to seek help, the response is outrageously inadequate. He finally gains entry after waiting four months, only to meet for a few minutes with a distracted doctor who hands him a fistful of prescriptions — most with suicidal side effects — and tells him to get back to him in three months. It’s appalling. “He’d thought that there was some sort of compact — wasn’t there? He was offering his life for his country, and his country would be there when he came home.”
Robinson demonstrated her deftness in handling the dynamics of a family under duress in “Cost.” In “Sparta,” the Farrells are a more congenial, highly functional bunch who are nonetheless stymied by Conrad’s condition. One small reservation about Robinson’s otherwise convincing scenario: It seems astonishing that his father, a law professor, and his mother, a family therapist, wouldn’t have done a little research into what their son was going through and intervened to make sure he got help.
It would be wonderful if “Sparta” led to improvements in mental-health care for veterans, but at the very least, it is bound to add understanding to their plight. Although too carefully wrought to be called improvised, Robinson’s powerful novel demonstrates that fiction actually can function as a sort of explosive device.
McAlpin reviews books regularly for The Washington Post, npr.org, the Los Angeles Times and other publications.
Michael Dirda is on vacation.
By Roxana Robinson
Sarah Crichton/Farrar Straus Giroux. 386 pp. $27