Going from peace to war can make a young man into a warrior. Going from war to peace can destroy him.
Conrad Farrell has no family military heritage, but as a classics major at Williams College, he has encountered the powerful appeal of the Marine Corps ethic. "Semper Fidelis" comes straight from the ancient world, from Sparta, where every citizen doubled as a full-time soldier. When Conrad graduates, he joins the Marines to continue a long tradition of honor, courage, and commitment.
As Roxana Robinson's new novel, Sparta, begins, Conrad has just returned home to Katonah, New York, after four years in Iraq, and he's beginning to learn that something has changed in his landscape. Something has gone wrong, though things should be fine: he hasn't been shot or wounded; he's never had psychological troubles--he shouldn't have PTSD. But as he attempts to reconnect with his family and his girlfriend and to find his footing in the civilian world, he learns how hard it is to return to the people and places he used to love. His life becomes increasingly difficult to negotiate: he can't imagine his future, can't recover his past, and can't bring himself to occupy his present. As weeks turn into months, Conrad feels himself trapped in a life that's constrictive and incomprehensible, and he fears that his growing rage will have irreparable consequences.
Suspenseful, compassionate, and perceptive, Sparta captures the nuances of the unique estrangement that modern soldiers face as they attempt to rejoin the society they've fought for. Billy Collins writes that Roxana Robinson is "a master at . . . the work of excavating the truths about ourselves"; The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley calls her "one of our best writers." In Sparta, with the powerful insight and acuity that marked her earlier books (Cost, Sweetwater, and A Perfect Stranger, among others), Robinson explores the life of a veteran and delivers her best book yet.
A Washington Post Notable Fiction Book of 2013
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Roxana Robinson is the author of four previous novels, three collections of short stories, and the biography Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, More, and Vogue, among other publications.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
There was a change in the engine pitch. The droning roar turned lower and more purposeful: the plane was changing angle. They were leaving the level flight path, nosing downward. Conrad felt an uneasy drop inside. After a moment he realized he was bracing himself against the seat, feet pressing hard against the floor as though against brakes. He made himself relax.
He leaned toward the window, looking out: until now, there’d been nothing to see. They’d left Frankfurt at night and had crossed all of Europe in darkness. The whole continent had lain below them, dark as the night sky itself, revealed only by constellations of city lights. By daybreak they’d been high over the gray emptiness of the Atlantic, far above the miniature waves and the distant, frozen whitecaps. Now they were over land again. Nova Scotia? Newfoundland? Anyway, North America. Home ground. Again Conrad felt the uneasy drop.
Below him lay dense green forest, broken only by the drifting silver shapes of lakes. From here the lakes seemed to be in motion, languidly swirling and eddying, as though the edge of a swamp had been stirred with a stick. All around them were woods.
Conrad imagined walking through the trees below: the leafy, springy duff, soft underfoot. The clean, aromatic tang of balsam, flecks of sunlight scattered across the dim trunks. The soil beneath these trees was always in shade. The air was always cool. Always cool. The notion gave him a kind of vertigo, and he closed his eyes.
What came into his mind was the place he had left, which was still there. He was here, descending over this place, cool, verdant, silent. The place he had left, which was still there, was arid, brown, deafening. Suffocatingly hot, heat pressed over it like a mattress. At this moment, while he was here, that place was there. But he could not hold both places in his mind at once. Trying to do so felt risky.
Conrad turned away from the window and looked at the man beside him, who was asleep, out cold.
Corporal Paul Anderson, Conrad’s second-squad leader, was slumped in his seat, his big head flopped sideways, wide chin sunk in his neck. His white-blond eyebrows were bright against the charred red of his sunburned face. His hair was blond, like his eyebrows, but it was barely there, buzz-cut, shaved down to a pale mist over his skull. Anderson’s lips were slightly parted, and saliva glistened faintly at one corner. He was a nice kid from Minnesota, quiet and reliable. Ordinarily, Conrad would have been sitting next to another officer, but there was an odd number of them on the flight. Conrad had taken his seat and beckoned to Anderson, who was also odd man out, without a seatmate. Anderson had barely moved since Germany; none of them had. The plane was full of sprawling, loose-lipped Marines, lost, gone, dead to the world.
Conrad liked seeing them like this: sleep was like salary, his men were owed. They were infantry grunts, and they’d been seven months on duty without a single day off. They deserved to sleep for months, years, decades. They deserved this long, roaring limbo, this deep absence from the world, from themselves. This plane ride was the floating bridge between where they’d been and where they were going—deployment and the rest of their lives. They deserved these hours of unconsciousness, this gorgeous black free fall.
There was something else they deserved, something he couldn’t define. They were all, himself as well, part of something large and interlocking, in which movements were slow and tectonic. Deep, shifting currents would carry them on to some form of deliverance. He trusted in this. He couldn’t define it or identify it, the movement or the destination, only sense it. His brain felt blurred, as though the plane were flying too fast for his thoughts.
Everything in his mind felt provisional, in fact. Lack of sleep: it was hard to think. His thoughts felt loose and shifting, temporarily in place. The way everything in-country had been provisional, nothing certain. Life had been improvised, moment by moment, for seven months. Tension was the steel skeleton on which everything else hung. He woke up early to it each day, white heat beating into the roof, urgency already flooding through his system. Fear. You didn’t call it fear, but that’s what it was. All that was over now, but the habit was hard to break. Was it a habit or a way of life? He wondered how long it would take to become a different person, how you’d know when it happened.
The flight attendant appeared in the aisle. She was blond but old, with waves of dry, ashy hair. Her face was small and foxy, she had a pointy nose and a thin, tidy mouth. She was wearing a sort of uniform, navy vest and skirt, long-sleeved white blouse. Smiling, she leaned into the little private space made by the high seatbacks. Her face drew nearer to Conrad.
“May I take that glass, sir?”
Her chapped lips were outlined in neon: her pale orange lipstick had worn off in the middle. On her vest was pinned a small winged gold emblem. Conrad glanced at it, automatically checking for rank, but of course she had no rank. It was an airline pin, she was a civilian. For some reason this irritated him, his glance, his realization. Irritability was also a result of sleep deprivation.
Conrad held out his glass, and she reached for it across the sleeping Anderson. She glanced down at him, then back at Conrad, pursing her mouth in a conspiratorial smile.
“Anything else I can get you, sir?”
She was half whispering, and her manner was both patronizing and intimate, suggesting that she and Conrad were partners, sharing a kind of parental responsibility for the sleeping Anderson. As though Anderson—who was a lion in combat and had once saved Conrad’s life—were a small child. A tiny black point of anger flared in Conrad’s chest. He looked at her without smiling.
“No, thanks,” he said.
She still hovered, but Conrad said nothing more. She leaned in farther toward him, and a small gold cross on a chain swung out from her neck. She was too close, and he could smell her perfume, sweet and fruity.
She spoke confidingly. “You know, I just want to say thank you.” Her voice was husky. “For what you’ve done for our country. All you boys. Helping to make us safe back home.”
“Thank you,” Conrad said, nodding; the black point was sharp inside his chest.
“Really.” Beneath her eyes were dark smudges of mascara, defining the wrinkles.
Conrad said nothing, gazing back. She waited, too close. They were alone in the space between the seats. Conrad breathed through his mouth so he wouldn’t smell the perfume.
“Thank you,” he said again, to make her leave.
She looked at him, her small blue eyes bright and liquid. She waited, but Conrad only stared, and her smile faded. She drew back, and the little cross swung back inside her blouse. She was still smiling, but now the smile was impersonal. She put the glass onto her stack and moved to the next row.
Conrad wondered if she’d say the same thing to the next officers. What was it that she thought they’d done to make her so much safer? He thought of the woman with the basket, Olivera whispering. The dog. The brown streets of Ramadi, the blowing trash.
He looked out the window again. They were now descending rapidly. Along the coastline was a filigree of miniature bays and islands edged with bright foam. At the shore the water was turquoise and transparent, but as it deepened, it darkened to cobalt, becoming opaque.
Conrad felt his chest constricting, the point of anger widening. He thought of her fruity perfume and the little gold cross swinging out from her collar.
His breath began to feel trapped. He looked down at the forest stretching inland, a dense green scumble going on forever. He scanned without thinking for roads, rooftops, the gleam of cars, metal, weapons, but there were only trees. There were no people in this landscape. No weapons.
He took a long, deliberate breath. At the bottom of his breath, deep inside his lungs, he felt a gritty scraping: sand. Trapped in his chest, rising and settling in sluggish swirls, clogging the airways. Sand was mineral, stone dust, it would never decompose, it could never be absorbed by his body. Iraq, inside him, forever. He wondered, panicked, if that was true. Everyone there had a cough. They called it the haji hack.
He breathed more shallowly. In seven months he’d breathed buckets of sand, everyone had, you couldn’t help it. The sand was fine as talcum powder, like a dry mist. It was in the air all the time. During a sandstorm there was nothing else to breathe, sand instead of air, sand instead of sky. During a storm the desert left the ground, lofting upward, whirling, weightless.
The first storm he’d ever been in was at the camp in Kuwait, near the Iraq border, after he’d first arrived. It was early morning. He’d been out jogging the perimeter when the wind came up. He’d heard about shamals, but he’d never been in one.
In a few steps the world closed around him and he was blind and alone. Around him the sand roared and seethed, swirling into his eyes, his nostrils, his ears. He could barely open his eyes, though there was no need, there was nothing to see. It was a strange kind of isolation. He began to grope his way through the frenzy, inching along step-by-step. He had no idea where he was, no idea where he was going. He breathed sand. His eyes stung; his face was scoured by airborne grit. His mouth and nose were full of it. His eyes narrowed to slits. He inched along, and finally his foot knocked against something: the tire of a Humvee. Miraculously, he’d been shuffling toward the camp, but it was just chance. He might have been headed toward a ravine, the enemy, anything.
After that he’d learned not to move and to hunker down until it was over. He bought a kaffiyeh, a long, fine-woven scarf, the kind the Iraqis wore. He coiled it around his neck, over his blouse, and in a storm he pulled it over his face to breathe through. It was against regulations to wear civilian clothes with your uniform, but he told his men they could wear the scarves. Anything that made them more effective was a weapon.
Before he’d gone there, Conrad had imagined the desert as like a beach without the ocean. He pictured pale, glittering sand, radiant and sunny, like a Caribbean shoreline. But the sand in Iraq was dull and dun-colored, and powder-fine. It was dust, not sand. Beneath your feet it felt packed, solid as concrete, but actually it was fine and weightless, the top layer always afloat. A brown film coated everything—boots, pillow, toothbrush, tongue. It was in your ears, in the tents, the mess hall, the latrines. After a storm you coughed it up for days. Your snot was dirty brown, your lungs full of grit. You were never free of it.
Conrad looked away from the window, across the aisle. Those Marines were slumped in their seats, too, dead to the world like Anderson. The thing was that Conrad didn’t want to see them, didn’t want to think about the sandstorms or the other Marines or anything else from over there—the rattle of machine guns, the stink of the shitters, the hot, smoky air, the closed faces of the people on the streets; he wanted none of those thoughts in his head, but what else was there to think about?
The thing was that he was tired of himself, tired of his thoughts, tired of the anxiety that permeated his brain like a bad smell. Being inside his head, just thinking at all, just being conscious, was like walking across a minefield. At any minute something might detonate, hurling him into someplace where he didn’t want to be. He was sick of it. There was nowhere to go.
He pulled the paperback out of the seat pocket again. It was a thriller he’d bought at the airport in Frankfurt. On the cover was a picture of a running man, silhouetted against a red hammer and sickle: the book was set during the Cold War, in Eastern Europe, the fifties. Spies meeting in cafés, getting on and off trains, shooting each other in dark alleys. It was like paintball; it wasn’t war. It was bullshit. He’d tried several times to read it, to get his mind off everything else; now he found his place and tried again.
Harding sat down at an empty table by the window. From here he could see all the way down the block, nearly to the Bergenstrasse. The waiter came over to him, a thin older man with a gray mustache and a peremptory manner. Harding ordered coffee. He put his newspaper on the table, folded back to show its name. He lit a cigarette and sat, waiting.
It was Viktor who came first. Harding watched him making his way down the street toward the café. He wore sunglasses and a black leather coat, and he carried his own folded copy of Der Sturm. He pushed open the door, looking around before he stepped inside, but Harding could see from his movements that he knew already where Harding was sitting. It was the waiter, then.
Viktor came over and sat down.
“Welcome,” he said, taking off his sunglasses. His eyes were cold and blue.
All this was meaningless. It had nothing to do with walking patrol down a brown street, heart hammering, blood roaring in your ears, watching the point man ahead of you who was walking gingerly, all of you walking goddamned gingerly, watching the faces of the men in the doorways and waiting for the sound of gunfire, for the big orange bloom of an explosion. Lying awake at night and listening for incoming. Not knowing if you were actually hearing it, the first sound of it, or if your brain was making it up, over and over.
Conrad looked up from the book. His heart had begun racing. He looked around the plane: nothing, there was nothing to alarm him. In a way, that was worse; he was helpless. Anderson was still slumped beside him. Across the aisle were two sleeping Marines, legs askew, heads tipped sideways. Conrad was not on the streets of Haditha but on a commercial airline bound for Bangor, Maine. The airplane droned steadily, hanging in the air at thirty thousand feet, following the complicated hologram of international flight patterns. He was not in control here. There was nothing for him to check, no reason for alarm, and so what was it? He felt a high, choking presence inside his chest. His heart still pounding, he wondered if this was evident, if other people could see his racing pulse, the anxiety flooding through him, the way alarm was rising up through his body to take over.
He couldn’t imagine what lay ahead: civilian life seemed unthinkable. He couldn’t remember what it was like. The last time he’d been in the civilian world he’d been in college, but that was years ago, and everything was different now. He’d no longer be in college, no longer in the Marines. He couldn’t think how to move on; it seemed like a cliff that he was approaching. Beyond was a dark drop.
He didn’t want to remember what lay behind him in Iraq. He couldn’t bear the images that rose up as soon as he closed his eyes. Olivera’s whispering. The dog, its ears flattened, tail curved between its legs. Again he felt the uneasy plummeting. The woman, holding up the basket, walking toward them. The girl on the bed. The pattern on the wall.
The thing was to get away from all this, get the thoughts out of his head. That was the thing.
He put the book back in the seat pocket and rubbed his hands on his thighs.
He should think about his parents and Claire. He should prepare himself to see them. Though the thing was that he couldn’t prepare himself, because he wasn’t the person they were expecting to meet. He felt an obligation to be the person they’d known, the one they were expecting, but he didn’t know how to change hi...
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