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‘Sparta': A Marine’s Homecoming

In Roxana Robinson’s haunting new novel “Sparta,” a Marine comes home from Iraq, and the story astonishes.

Cover detail of "Sparta" by Roxana Robinson (Courtesy)

Cover detail of “Sparta” by Roxana Robinson (Courtesy)

The trauma of war and coming home from war has been well-documented in America’s last, long decade and more of war. Now, it’s a novelist’s turn.

Roxana Robinson’s new novel “Sparta” brings Conrad Farrell home from war, from Iraq. He’s a classics major who joined the Marines. But he didn’t find the ancient glories in modern war. He found fear, dust, death, moral ambiguity.

And then he came home, with no idea how to put the distant parts of his life together. It’s a terrifying return, one which many have made.

This hour, On Point: Roxanne Robinson and “Sparta.”

– Tom Ashbrook

Guest

Roxana Robinson, author of the novels “Sparta,” “Cost,” “Sweetwater” as well as the the biography “Georgia O’Keeffe: A Life.”

Book Excerpt

Sparta: Chapter 1

Copyright © 2013 by Roxana Robinson

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 himself back. They wouldn’t want this new person, the one he now was, but he couldn’t remember what that other person was like. Even if he could remember, he couldn’t become him again.

Another problem: he couldn’t exactly remember what everyone looked like, his parents and his girlfriend. If Claire was his girlfriend. He wondered if this was part of what had happened in Iraq, and did it mean that he had post-traumatic stress disorder? Was losing your memory, or part of your mind, some kind of PTSD symptom? He didn’t want to ask. Could you lose a part of your mind? That was all in the bleak, broken wilderness beyond the cliff drop, ravines and rocks—what was wrong with his mind.

He could remember only parts of their faces. He could call up his mother’s mournful dark eyes, the glossy sheen of Claire’s red-brown hair, his father’s closemouthed smile, but he couldn’t seem to produce a whole face. Was this going to be permanent? Was this what it would be like? Would he keep discovering things he couldn’t fix? He felt the uneasy drop.

He couldn’t imagine talking to any of them. What would they say? At least Claire wasn’t coming out to Pendleton. He’d see her when he flew back east; he could dread that later. His brother and sister weren’t coming out to meet him, either. He thought of the thicket of braces crowding Ollie’s mouth, Jenny’s look of frowning intensity. He remembered a time, years before, when they were little kids. One summer morning they were out on the lawn in their pajamas, playing leapfrog and singing at the top of their voices. He couldn’t remember the song. That was all; nothing had happened. Why did he remember that, and not the way his brother and sister looked now? Frustrating.

Anyway, they wouldn’t be there; it would be only his parents. Conrad had another whole flight, from Bangor to San Diego, to summon his parents’ faces and to think of things he could say. He’d try to talk as if he were the person he’d been four years ago.

The plane was dropping fast now, through intermittent clouds. The window went suddenly dark, then bright again, the light flickering. The strobing flashes made Conrad uneasy, and his chest felt tight again. He thought of the woman in the car, the sudden bloom of flames against the windshield, and the noise blotting out the world, that silent echo that seemed to go through your body, though these were exactly the things he was trying not to think about. It was like having to watch a movie: the movie was inside his head, and he couldn’t stop it by closing his eyes. He had strategies, but he was never sure they’d work or how long they’d last.

The plane slid suddenly into a dense layer of cloud, and the sound of the engine turned loud and urgent. The windows were closely sealed with gray. Conrad’s chest tightened further and he began to count backward from ten. He could feel his heart—big, pounding beats. He focused on the numbers, nine, breath, eight, breath, seven, spacing them evenly. With each one he drew a deep, slow breath. By the time he reached six, the plane had passed through the cloud layer and the windows were no longer sealed. Conrad stared out at the drifting wisps of mist, the view below. More green forest, now closer, the texture of the trees becoming sharper and clearer. Everything seemed more dangerous the closer they drew to the ground. The plane’s racing descent seemed full of risk. He listened for gunfire: they shouldn’t be coming down like this, so obviously, so slowly, in broad daylight, with no defensive maneuvers. He drew long, measured breaths, counting slowly until the air was entirely clear of clouds. His heart was still pounding.
They were approaching the airport, making a long loop over Bangor. The landscape now was semi-urban: roofs, buildings, a grid of roads and highways. Tiny cars moved steadily along like markers in a game.
When the plane banked hard, heading for final approach, the roar of the engines became deafening. Conrad felt his heart respond, his pulse rising.

Anderson opened his eyes, closed his mouth, sat up.

“We landing, sir?”

Conrad nodded. He didn’t want to risk speaking, didn’t want to let Anderson know what was happening to him.

Anderson rubbed at his face, his eyes, his pale rabbit’s lashes. Everyone around them was waking up; Marines were starting to talk and laugh, excited. Conrad’s heart thundered.

The airport runways and buildings stretched out below them, straight axial lines, like a mechanical drawing. The plane dropped rapidly, and the long flat buildings, the dark tarmac, rose up alarmingly to meet it. The engines became louder, the pitch ascending toward some unbearable climax. The plane fell sickeningly toward the earth. There was a pounding inside his skull.

He could feel it coming: the moment in which you heard the sound. It was before anything had hit, when the air was full of ozone, the moment in which you understood that something was happening but not yet what. It was the moment that you knew in your body before you knew it in your mind, the moment when you felt the sound, like a great silence taking you over, the shock wave rolling through your body, your heart and lungs, time stopping around you. Everything flying apart into fragments. That limitless radiant moment, glittering behind your eyelids, before you knew.

He was frozen and still, his muscles clenched. His palms were sweating. Inside, he was huge and cavernous, and his heart was doing something monstrous and unnatural. Tears, horribly, brimmed at his eyelids. Some avalanche was poised, ready to break loose. He couldn’t stop it. Something was running riot through him, some cloudburst of panic and confusion, noise and smoke and terror. He was consumed by fear. It was sweeping through him as though he’d been overtaken by fire, as though he were now rippling and radiant with flames. Somewhere he was screaming. Terror was blowing him apart.

He was counting and breathing, making his chest rise and fall, rise and fall, in, out, silently saying the numbers. Nine, he told himself desperately, breath, eight, spacing them evenly, breathing in, out, and then they were no longer over the runway but on it. The plane came down hard and fast, thundering roughly onto the tarmac, making the miraculous transfer from element to element, from air to earth at a hundred miles an hour. Undecided, the plane bounced twice, up into the air, then settled on earth, transforming itself from something free-floating and weightless into something massive and ponderous, lumbering, ungainly.

As the plane settled onto the tarmac, the cabin exploded with cheers. Relief flooded through Conrad, a wild wave of gratitude loosened him inside. Tears still threatened, but they were now from relief. It shamed him, but he was helpless before these towering gusts of feeling.

The plane raced down the runway, roaring and rattling. As they neared the end of the pavement, the engine scream rose further, revving to a wild, unthinkable pitch. The plane braked hard, flinging everyone forward. An empty can ricocheted down the aisle. The plane slowed abruptly, a weird, unnatural deceleration, and came to a sudden rolling stop. Conrad was sweating, his body damp and hot inside his uniform.

The pilot’s voice came over the intercom. It sounded like God, deep and annunciatory. “Gentlemen, welcome home.”

The cabin erupted again into shouts and whistles.

“Oo-rah! Back in the USA!” The Marines stamped and hooted, clapping. Conrad heard them from a great distance, through the louder pounding in his ears. He was actually on fire—was that it? He felt stunned. He turned to Anderson. He was trying to breathe normally and wondered how his face looked. He wondered if this showed.

“We made it,” Conrad said. He hoped he was grinning.

Anderson looked at him, his gaze sober. “You okay, sir?”

Conrad nodded.

He was shaking. He didn’t dare lift his hand or speak. What he wanted was to lean back against the seat, close his eyes, and let this thing, whatever it was, roll through him, take him over, and close him down.

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