The only time this reviewer ever screamed back at her television was during an airing of David Rabe’s play Sticks and Bones. The show was about a returning Vietnam vet who’d been blinded in the war. His family was hung up on him sleeping with a prostitute or something else that was so beside the point that it was maddening. Roxana Robinson’s latest, long-awaited novel, Sparta, might make a reader just as mad.
Robinson’s previous novel, Cost, was unflinching in its portrayal of the ruination caused by a young man’s drug addiction. Sparta is nearly as devastating.
The protagonist is Conrad Farrell, a returning Iraq veteran, who’s come home to his loving, liberal, upper-middle-class family in upstate New York. Though none of them are as crazy as the family in Sticks and Bones, they too just don’t get it. Not only that, they don’t want to get it, despite their exhortations to Conrad to tell them “everything.” This is especially true of his mom, Lydia, a therapist. She’s a loving and caring mother—with an infuriating tendency to start coming unhinged anytime Conrad even hints at what really went on over there.
Still, we understand why an otherwise comfortable bunch like the Farrells can’t really cope when the chaos of war is dropped suddenly in their midst. We sympathize with Conrad’s girlfriend, Claire, even as we secretly wish she’d run as far from him as she can, even as we know Conrad desperately needs someone in his corner. But we also know that something very bad is going to happen if she stays.
Robinson’s sympathy for the deeply messed-up Conrad and his fellow vets is as impressive as her knowledge of their circumstances. How could she know what it’s like to be blown up by an IED? How does she know about the macabre jokes soldiers tell to keep themselves sane? In fact, Robinson interviewed several vets to give her book the verisimilitude it needed. Their stories must have been excruciating to hear, but they needed to be heard.
Their stories, or at least Conrad’s story, also deserve to be told. Full of the grief and deep compassion that’s becoming Robinson’s trademark, Sparta is a brilliant, necessary work.