James Hayman: I just finished reading Sparta, a novel by a writer named Roxana Robinson that initially attracted me because I’d been so impressed by her previous novel, Cost. Cost told the story of a mother’s struggle to save the younger of her two sons from the ravages of heroin addiction.
A few years back, it won the Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance (MWPA) literary award as the best novel by an author associated with or, in Robinson’s case, as a summer resident of Maine. Cost was a fine book. One of those that you don’t easily forget.
Sparta is even better. It’s a novel that has refined and deepened my understanding of the individual soldier’s experience of the Iraq war. It is told from the point of view of an intelligent and thoughtful young marine officer named Conrad Farrell and brings into sharp focus the near impossibility of someone who has seen and done what Farrell has seen and done of simply returning home and becoming the same person he was before.
The difficulties experienced by returning veterans of war has, over the years, been a recurring theme in American literature and in films like The Best Years of Their Lives and The Men. But Robinson adds to and refines what has been done before with a master’s touch.
She did extensive research before attempting to write this book and it shows. In addition to reading most of the accounts of the war, particularly the battles of Ramadi and Haditha, she interviewed a number of marines who lived through it and managed to get them to reveal a lot about their experiences and how it affected them.
This is a crime-writing blog and Sparta is not crime story per se. But it deals with the devastating effects of what I consider one of the most damaging criminal enterprises of all time, a wholly unnecessary war fought for wholly fraudulent reasons.
Sparta doesn’t deal with the causes of the war. Rather it recounts in harrowing detail the struggles and ultimate failure of an intelligent and sensitive young man named Conrad Farrell to recover, after returning home, from the psychic and emotional traumas inflicted by his service. Farrell’s interior struggles are brought brilliantly to life and, I suspect, will stay in my mind forever.
One of the primary characters in my own third book, Darkness First, is Harlan Savage, Detective Maggie Savage’s younger brother. Like Conrad, Harlan is a Marine Corps veteran who served two tours in Iraq and, like Conrad, took part in the battles of Fallujah, Ramadi and Haditha––arguably the bloodiest and most brutal engagements of the entire Iraq war. And while I think I depicted Harlan’s experience of PTSD accurately, I neither attempted nor achieved the depth of Robinson’s portrayal.
Conrad Farrell is much less a prototypical marine veteran than Harlan. He is the son of well to do, politically liberal parents who live in a lovely old farmhouse in an upscale Westchester County suburb. His father is a law professor. His mother a therapist. He graduated from Williams College in the Spring of 2001 with a degree in Classics. His senior thesis focused on the military successes and ultimate failure of the Greek city-state of Sparta and its glorification of the warrior and the way it separated the warrior class from the rest of the nation.
Conrad joins the marines in the Spring of 2001, before 9/11, not out of the patriotic fervor that attracted so many after the attacks, but rather to test himself against the Spartan ideal of the disciplined warrior. To make himself more of a man.
The book opens on a commercial airliner that is bringing Conrad and other marines home from the war and to subsequent reunions with their families at the airport. But even as their plane approaches, Conrad knows that neither he nor his men will ever be the same men they were before they went to war. That none of them will be able to become part a civilian society that was almost wholly untouched by what went on in Iraq.
Back home, Conrad cannot get the war out of his mind. It is with him both in his nightmares and in his waking moments. He is haunted by the dying screams of one of his men locked by searing heat inside a burning Humvee, images of dead Iraqi children killed in their beds because Conrad believed his men were being fired on by snipers from the house they were in. He remains hyper-alert for possible insurgent attacks even as he walks the streets of New York or drives his mother to a summer vacation at a beach house. He struggles and fails to communicate what he has been through with his well-intentioned parents, his siblings who he genuinely loves as well as with his girlfriend Claire.
When they earnestly ask him to talk about about what happened in the war, he can’t. He can only offer amusing anecdotes about life with his buddies. He communicates, via email, with the men from his platoon. But even with them he can’t reveal the depth of the torments going through his mind. He is their leader. Their role-model. He offers encouragement and suggestions but never tells them about the horrors he himself is experiencing. Marines don’t complain, he tells himself over and over. Marines set the mission and carry it out.
Thoughts of suicide float through Conrad’s mind throughout the book. One of the harshest indictments in Sparta is of the Veterans Administration where Conrad ultimately goes to seek help. He is met with an uncaring bureaucracy who make him fill out endless forms and then make him wait four months for an appointment with a psychiatrist. When he arrives, the doctor asks a few questions, gives him five minutes of his time and then dismisses him with a handful of prescriptions and tells him to come back in three months. Conrad researches the side effects of the drugs he has been offered. Every one of them warns of side effects that include the increased incidence of suicidal thoughts. He throws them away in disgust.
Despite its depiction of the VA, Sparta is not a polemic. It is a fine novel, beautifully written with characters who are sensitively portrayed. I recommend it whole-heartedly to anyone who wants to begin to understand what the Iraq war has done to our country.