Marine Lt. Conrad Farrell, just back from four years in Iraq, has a problem watching Monty Python's "Life of Brian."
"Crowds of robed people milled about, pressing bodies, the confusion, growing chaos. He wanted someone to take charge."
It's one of the stranger manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder in Roxana Robinson's disturbing "Sparta."
Robinson, who often writes about financially comfortable East Coast families, has published four other novels, three short-story collections and a biography of Georgia O'Keeffe. In her previous book, "Cost," a family confronts a son's addiction: "Jackie was always the star, the center of things. There was a glitter about him."
Similarly in "Sparta," Conrad "was always on the honor roll, always captain of the team," Robinson writes. A classics major at Williams College — his senior thesis was on the militant Greek city-state — he shocked his liberal Westchester, N.Y., family by announcing in early 2001 that he would join the Marines following graduation.
That initial jolt is a fading memory when Conrad returns physically whole yet mentally lacerated. Although he was close enough to a roadside bomb to catch the shock wave, he's damaged only in places no one can see or reach. Nor can he ask for help because that's not the Marine way.
It isn't just his recurring symptoms: "the roaring blackness in his ears, the intrusions on his mind, the explosions of rage, the sense of sullen misery that underlay each day. The sense of confusion, and the relentless headache."
He also has lost vital connections to his parents, his two siblings and his girlfriend because they haven't shared his world for the four years in Iraq: "No one would round a corner to find something lying in the street, ripped open and gasping, ruby-colored, terrible."
Robinson draws a compelling victim, a man trained to control himself and command others in extreme situations yet helpless among civilians, wrenched by anger and paranoia on crowded streets and in quiet restaurants, in highway traffic and at home watching a comic film.
Conrad resists seeking support from the Veterans Affairs hospital in Manhattan. Then an initial foray ends in retreat, while a second try gets him an appointment for three months later.
When that day nears, he's told he has to wait three months more. For his eventual interview he draws a distracted doctor who reels off rote phrases and writes four prescriptions. Robinson's understated take on the VA is devastating.
The author's small cast and few settings generate more than enough heat and emotion in the many moments when humans try and fail to connect. Her flashbacks to Iraq supply vivid snapshots that footnote Conrad's pain and stress on the home front.
They also underline how little dramatic tension the novel's civilian side presents. Other than wrestling with his demons and dodging offers of help, Conrad's main lines of action are efforts: to apply to graduate school, to reconcile with his girlfriend and eventually to get help from the VA. There's no significant movement for most of the book in any of these areas.
The paralysis is psychologically, even politically, apt. But in a country that's only just starting to produce fiction from our sad ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, Robinson's powerful case study leaves a lot more to be done with the genre.
— "Sparta" is published by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux (386 pages, $27).