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Originally published Sunday, June 23, 2013 at 5:02 AM

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Roxana Robinson’s ‘Sparta’: a warrior’s perilous homecoming

Roxana Robinson’s fifth novel, “Sparta,” chronicles the traumatic homecoming of a veteran, a college graduate whose abstract notions of warfare have been blown apart in the dust, heat and peril of the Iraq war.

Special to The Seattle Times

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by Roxana Robinson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 386 pp., $27

In the early pages of Roxana Robinson’s fifth novel, “Sparta,” there is a small yet telling incident.

Marine Corps officer Conrad Farrell is flying home to the U.S. after his final stretch in Iraq, when a flight attendant thanks him sincerely for “What you’ve done for our country. All you boys. Helping to make us safe back home.”

Rather than appreciate the gesture, Conrad is angered by it. Just what has he done? And was it worth doing? And he senses, as the reader does, that feeling safe is not what will happen after he returns to civilian life. Not by a longshot.

Conrad’s perilous re-entry often parallels the many news reports filed about young Mideast war veterans troubled by violent memories and nightmares, bursts of temper and a terrible sense of isolation and alienation when they leave the service.

But Robinson’s intricately observed portrait is also unusual and individualized. Conrad is no typical small-town or lower-middle-class enlistee in the modern military. He is a college graduate, well-read in the classics. He grew up in an intellectual, politically liberal household outside of New York City.

His choice of entering the Marines was not so much an act of patriotism as a cerebral notion of proving his mettle, emulating the elite brotherhood of Spartan soldiers in ancient Greece — whose culture he avidly studied at Williams College.

Such romantic notions were quickly blasted apart in the dusty, sweltering and perilous roads and villages of Iraq, vividly conjured in brutal memories Conrad can’t suppress.

Without a whisper of sensationalism or melodrama, “Sparta” views a warrior’s homecoming through Conrad’s increasingly traumatized consciousness. We feel his strain and discomfort in social situations he once welcomed. We learn how sudden loud noises trigger flashbacks and a flight-fight response, how daunting the notion of going to grad school — or working toward any kind of future — becomes.

Keeping his turmoil from his sympathetic but confused girlfriend, Claire, his perplexed and loving parents, and his concerned siblings, Conrad is gradually imploding. “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 ... He was sick of it. There was nowhere to go.”

He can’t even communicate honestly with the Marine buddies he stays in touch with, so how to find a way out of the seething self-loathing, the despair?

While “Sparta” at times moves through Conrad’s malaise so slowly and incrementally it courts impatience, the effect is cumulative and, ultimately, shattering. One of the more shocking challenges of post traumatic stress victims the novel personalizes is how long it takes them to receive timely mental-health treatment from an overwhelmed, and (in this account) horrifyingly insensitive Veterans Affairs.

Robinson clearly has done thorough research for “Sparta,” and she acknowledges her debt to the works of military-veteran writers like Anthony Swofford (“Jarhead”) and Tim O’Brien (“The Things They Carried”).

One only wishes her novel didn’t end so abruptly, and that we could follow Conrad’s path further. Gratitude for his sacrifice is not sufficient. What happens to him and to thousands of veterans like him is an urgent national concern, and responsibility, and we ignore it at our own peril.

Misha Berson is the theater critic for The Seattle Times.

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