Now that President Obama has committed America’s armed forces to a new phase of combat operations in the Middle East (however limited, so far), it is an excellent time to shine a light on one of the most important and impressive novels to emerge from the Iraq War.
Sparta, first published in 2013, is now more timely than ever.
As anyone who follows the news can attest, military veterans are committing suicide in record numbers. The term Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (first coined in the aftermath of the Vietnam War in the late 1970s) is now as familiar as any lingo can be. And, one by one, books are piling up (memoirs, novels, and story collections) by authors who served in Iraq or Afghanistan. Sometimes both places. These recent conflicts have become America’s longest wars. Perhaps also our most ambiguous
Enter Roxana Robinson. In a literary career that is redolent of the glory days when a gifted author could be known as a Man of Letters or a Woman of Letters, Roxana Robinson has authored nine books: a magisterial biography of artist Georgia O’Keeffe, three short-story collections, and five novels to boot.
Never shying away from exceedingly knotty, emotionally wrenching narrative motifs (her novel Cost is a tour de force storyline regarding the calamity of heroin addiction and its impact on a singular family), it’s perhaps inevitable that Robinson would ultimately confront the theme of war and its deleterious effects on one traumatized veteran’s milieu.
And confront it she does. In Sparta, the modern-day wartime odyssey of Conrad Farrell is articulated, anatomized, and painstakingly dramatized with such precisely etched sentences and such a plethora of telling details that it’s fair to say that this novel belongs on the same shelf as other Returning Veteran Chronicles: e.g., John Dos Passos’ One Soldier’s Initiation (a World War One account), James Jones’ Whistle (the capstone third volume to Jones’s World War Two trilogy, which began with From Here to Eternity and continued with The Thin Red Line), and so many others.
Aside from the fact that Sparta is a novel written by a female Quaker who has neither served in the military nor been a witness to war, there are other unique aspects to this work of art. Protagonist Conrad Farrell was partly inspired by reports that Robinson read about a new demographic in America’s military. She learned that there had been a sizable increase in middle-class and upper-middle class college-educated enlistees, offsetting the usual pattern of so many recruits being fresh out of high school or from the lower rungs of the economic ladder.
In the case of Conrad Farrell, being a college graduate also means being an old-fashioned liberal arts aficionado of the highest order: He is a Classics major, with a deep admiration for the ethos and legacies of the ancient Greek city of Sparta.
In Robinson’s mesmerizing prose, the fixation that Conrad Farrell has on antique ideals is clear. Here he tries to explain to his parents his passion for joining the Marines:
“It’s kind of a continuum. The classical writers love war, that’s their main subject. Being a soldier was the whole deal, the central experience. That’s what first got me interested. Sparta. The Peloponnesian War, the lliad. Thucydides, Homer, Tacitus. I wanted to see what it was like.”
His liberal, peace-love-and-granola parents, raised in the post-Vietnam era with its tainted view of all things martial, are flummoxed.
As is the case with so many other grand enlistment fantasies, the actual experience of Conrad Farrell is light years away from what he expected. Although he rises to each challenge presented by boot camp (and the training regimens of the Marines are notoriously demanding), his four years in Iraq leave him transformed and grimly aware that there is no place whatsoever for him in the civilian society he returns to.
Here, too, Roxana Robinson has created a narrative that belongs with the best of the books left behind by others who explored the agonies of returning veterans.
Incrementally, as one episode builds upon another (Conrad cannot renew his rapport with his girlfriend; he can’t get traction on any career path; his anger curdles into rage, and before long he is in fear of his own potential as a walking time bomb, all of which baffles him and bewilders others because he did not get physically wounded in Iraq and it’s assumed that he ought to adjust accordingly), the arc of the narrative burrows more and more into the depths of one man’s crises
There are multiple issues and a great many passages in Sparta rivaling the best writing of male veterans who described in their memoirs or their novels this same type of postwar trauma. In his memoir A Rumor of War, author Philip Caputo was merciless in delineating his own transitions from gung-ho Marine to embittered combat veteran to furious citizen whose towering rages were fueled by the idiotic indifference of vast swaths of civilians to the war that plagued his generation.
Similarly, in his novels Some Came Running and Whistle, not only did James Jones create seminal PTSD narratives, but he also meticulously illustrated how it was not just veterans who are affected by wartime traumas, but everyone around them too.
In Sparta, novelist Roxana Robinson has deployed her stupendous imagination as well as her stellar research skills for the purpose of writing this generation’s The Red Badge of Courage. And she has succeeded as handsomely as Stephen Crane did (let the record show that Crane, too, was neither a combat vet nor yet a witness to war at the time he composed The Red Badge of Courage).
Coda: Not long ago, Roxana Robinson’s Sparta received the James Webb Award for Distinguished Fiction by the USMC Heritage Foundation. Such an honor says it all.
(M. J. Moore is completing a biography of author Mario Puzo.)