OCTOBER 8, 2018
THE PUBLICITY PHOTOS for the new novel Cherry show a flinty-eyed author who looks like he strayed from an Abercrombie & Fitch prison-chic catalog shoot. This only befits the current mailing address of the author: Federal Correctional Institution, Ashland, Kentucky, 41105.
I was prepared to assume the hype surrounding Nico Walker’s debut book was more about the novelty of an incarcerated author than the quality of the prose, which has been hailed by some as next-gen Denis Johnson. Then I devoured Cherry in close to a single sitting and understood why this harrowing roman à clef about war and drug addiction has found an audience.
As with Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson’s seminal picaresque, Cherry opens with an unnamed narrator navigating the quotidian concerns and tedium of addiction. “The rigs in the cupboard are all blood-used and crooked, like instruments of torture,” writes Walker, introducing the matter-of-fact tone and incisive point of view with which he will chronicle the narrative’s large and small horrors, as well as its fleeting moments of beauty.
In this scene, the needles are also dull and the narrator is having trouble finding a shirt or pants that aren’t bloodstained or cigarette-burned. Even the cigarettes, Pall Malls, are second-rate. The dog has pissed on the floor, and an unreliable dopeboy is pulling into the driveway.
The dingy milieu is familiar to anyone who’s read one of the million descent-into-addiction/rise-into-recovery tales available at your local bookstore. And, on cue, shots of heroin are cooked up so the narrator and his girlfriend can get right. The dose is nearly fatal, but since a bank heist is already on the to-do list, our guy pulls himself off the floor and goes off to do some crimes. Making his getaway, he reminds himself to:
Act like you have places to go and people to see.
Act like you love the police.
Act like you never did drugs.
Act like you love America so much it’s retarded.
But don’t act like you robbed a bank.
The prologue ends with sirens screaming and the narrator confiding, “I feel peaceful.”
It’s a scenario straight from Walker’s own journey from a heroic Iraq War vet with severe PTSD to a junkie who went on a bank-robbing spree and landed behind bars. But the lightly fictionalized narrative is still propulsive. Fiction of late has rarely felt as bracing and lived-in as does Walker’s Cherry, perhaps because graduate writing programs have seized the supply chain. But here is a writer whose very life is a forensic study of modern American mishaps and the joyride for the reader is seeing, page-by-page, whether he has the grasp and the language to transcend anatomy-of-a-tragedy conventions and make Cherry into something that speaks to our times.
In case you’re not yet familiar with his backstory, Nico Walker grew up in suburban Ohio affluence with a stable and loving family. He did well in school, sports, and had better luck with the ladies than many of the lost boys of his generation who seek solace in Joe Rogan podcasts and Jordan Peterson YouTube videos, or worse.
He moved aimlessly through college, drifting on the currents of his comfortable life, partying and playing music and probably reading a little more than some of his peers. Things were expected, but the pressure was mild. Then the September 11 terrorist attacks happened and our catastrophic response to them added an accelerating agent to something that was already gathering like a slow-moving storm on the horizons of American life, especially for kids coming of age in the new millennium. Walker called that thing “moral antigravity,” which he became intimately familiar with when, in a patriotic burst, he signed up for the Army in 2005, just when the Sunni insurgency started to get really hot.
The narrator of Cherry — who we can’t help but see as Walker’s stand-in — isn’t long into basic training before he realizes his idealism was misplaced:
Drill Sergeant Cole punched me in the penis for no reason. You’d have that though. You just had to remember it was all make-believe. The drill sergeants were just pretending to be drill sergeants. We were pretending to be soldiers. The Army was pretending to be the Army.
Moral antigravity comes in many forms, and Walker finds Toby Keith’s reprehensible war whoop, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” illustrative (“This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage / And you’ll be sorry that you messed with / The U.S. of A. / ’Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way,” sings Keith). It is this song that greets soldiers as they arrive at basic training and which also sends them off to a war in which everything is a charade except the butchery.
Despite being pretty savvy to the charade from the start, Walker served with distinction, earning a bunch of honors while pulling more than 200 missions as a combat medic in Iraq from 2005–2006. In one of the early passages from the novel’s war section, Walker’s alter ego, often tasked with bagging up the remains of his friends, realizes on a night when US Special Forces raid a Mahdi compound that he and his fellow grunts are really just fodder.
And they killed a lot of hajis, 40 of the poor motherfuckers. It only took a few minutes. We didn’t do anything but stay in place. We didn’t even hear it. I wouldn’t ever have known about the 40 dead hajis if I hadn’t read about them on Yahoo! News the next morning. I wondered how it was they’d done it.
Anyway, that’s when I figured out we weren’t there to do shit. We’d do for getting fucked-up-or-killed-by-bombs purposes, and everyday-waste-of-your-fucking-time purposes, but no one thought we could do the actual fighting, whatever that was.
Coming home to a culture that is criminally disengaged from the realities and consequences of our Iraq misadventures goes just about as well as you’d expect. The narrator descends into a spiral of drugs and crime in the form of petty cash grabs at bank-teller windows until the bleak trail finally brings us back to the beginning and those sirens promising relief.
If this sounds rote, like son of Jesus’ Son, don’t be put off. There’s a lot more going on here than junkie hijinks. Despite how closely the novel hews to Walker’s life, this isn’t a story of one man’s slide. It’s a tale of collective failure. Even so, Walker is never a scold. The narrator is a generous, wry guide as he conducts this tour through hell, and Walker takes care to keep things on a human scale. Cherry is never just a parable. It doesn’t let us off the hook that easily. It puts us in the passenger seat with the narrator, dying to love America and ready to kill, or at least rob a bank, for an honest moment.
Cherry is not perfect by any means. The women are one-dimensional, mostly there to do drugs and have sex with or to be agents of disappointment. There are no real conversations with women in Cherry, not even between the narrator and his unconvincing love interest. In fact, while there is plenty of dialogue, there is nothing like a real conversation in the entire book, and that’s possibly the most harrowing detail in Cherry’s denuded landscape. The characters seem to have given up on language as an essential part of the social fabric. It’s for orders, or punch lines, or notes being passed to bank tellers. It’s not for talking.
As I moved through Cherry, I found myself cheering for the author, whose story is such an apt vessel for a multitude of generational ills, the way you might sympathize with any artist pushing the edge of his or her technique in a wager on something real. The stakes were high. That he bet his life on fiction is laudable. That he delivered is literature.
Joe Donnelly is an award-winning journalist and writer living in Los Angeles. A collection of his profiles, L.A. Man: Profiles From a Big City and a Small World, came out in the spring on Rarebird Books. He is a visiting professor of English at Whittier College.