"My theory was I was a piece of shit and deserved it when bad things happened to me": On Nico Walker’s "Cherry"
Nico Walker | Cherry | Alfred A. Knopf | August 14, 2018 | 317 Pages
I had a moment while reading my galley of Cherry. Actually quite a few of them, but during this one in particular, I was sitting in a deck chair on the roof of my apartment building, the penthouse occupants evidently decamped to the Hamptons for the weekend. At the time I’d been ailing from a mysterious virus for a month, clinging by a thread to my job and concomitant health insurance, such that lugging myself up seven floors and tiptoeing over to the neighbors’ patio to sweat through a ninety degree afternoon seemed like my greatest accomplishment in weeks. So things weren’t going great, but as everyone kept reminding me, they could have been worse.
One of the ways things could have been worse, I reflected while leafing through the book, is if I had managed to maneuver into any of the ordinary life events which gradually transform Nico Walker’s nameless narrator from a midwestern everyteen into a bank-robbing, PTSD-suffering junkie. Some years prior to being the vaguely sick dude cooking on the roof with a paperback, I was very passionate about football, weightlifting, Mellencamp (who actually hates war and Republicans and sues people every time they use his music to promote either, but that’s a minor detail), and Rocky films. I also suspected that college might be a $50,000 a year scam, which it sort of was, for some of the reasons I surmised and others I didn’t. If I’d only had a slightly different combination of parents, friends, address, and recruiters, I don’t see any reason why I wouldn’t have been convinced to follow generations worth of my immediate demographic and sign up to fight foreign wars.
This is melodramatic, in a way Cherry is knowingly familiar. What I’m saying is I think there’s a fine line between being a nescient desk jockey and treating your military-grade trauma with heroin or getting your head blown off in a desert mission launched under false pretenses. That Cherry relays this case in such an efficient, convincing fashion makes it an indispensable read for its audience—ideally male children of Bush 43—drawing a logical through-line from the affectless young men we were encouraged to be through the War on Terror and the opioid crisis.
Cherry is, happily, an Event Novel of an increasingly rare sort. Walker, a decorated Iraq veteran who suffered severe PTSD and fell head-on into addiction upon discharge, is currently serving an eleven-year sentence for ten bank robberies committed in greater Cleveland. His profile as a war hero from a well-to-do family, verbose addict in recovery, and contrite nonviolent criminal casts him as a contemporary Great Lakes antihero. By the author’s own account, Cherry was more or less coaxed out of him by Matthew Johnson and Gian DiTrapano, the erratic literary patriots behind Tyrant Books, who’d read about Walker’s remarkable case in a Buzzfeed article. Drafts were hacked out on a typewriter in Walker’s Kentucky jail cell and edited via USPS.
I don’t know how often would-be writers—much less prisoners!—need to be convinced by publishers to pen their debut masterpieces, but in Walker’s case his story and abundance of idle hours would seem to have provided supple clay for his Tyrant editors, who ultimately passed Cherry on to Knopf. Many of the novel’s episodes, ranging from a Cleveland adolescence through domestic assignment, deployment, addiction, and bank robbery, bear strong resemblances to those recounted in Walker’s Buzzfeed profile. And while its compelling genesis makes it a likely bestseller, Cherry is deeply emblematic of Tyrant’s aesthetic values. One wonders whether Walker’s tale more desperately begged for Johnson and DiTrapano’s stewardship or vice versa.
As a magazine and later as an indie book imprint, Tyrant built a following by publishing off-the-beaten-literary-path novelists such as Blake Butler, Scott McClanahan, and the pseudonymous David Shapiro. The genre was loosely referred to as alt-lit back when "alt-" was a prefix which could respectably be applied to other words, operating as a counterweight to pretentious, flowery, and privileged MFA fiction. Many of their authors focus on depressed young adults in depressed communities, with blunt expository narration and clipped, hyper-realistic dialogue like Carver on Percocet. And while many of these stories and novels offer pragmatic explorations of trauma, addiction, and mental illness, there’s also a capacity for self-pity, the dramatic quest for romance in squalor and cynicism.
Cherry’s masculine anguish makes the best case yet for the clinical Tyrant-core Lishian tone, and for a diary of a heroin-addicted veteran is almost entirely devoid of self-pity. Walker’s paragraphs subsist on an almost perverse comic relief, building upon their own objective misery. He constructs contracted sequences of harrowing events, each lurid detail further evoking a legitimate hellscape, and then appends them with pithy ironic observations. I saw something terrible, then I did something worse, then I observed a genuine atrocity. But we had a cheap laugh at the end of it.
Even the coarsest of Walker’s paragraphs house gorgeous daggers, with vivid characterizations woven in a seemingly haphazard fashion. "I don’t especially like Black because he’s always on some bullshit," a dealer is introduced. "Still he’s alright as far as dope boys go. All his brothers are in jail." Without moralization or aggrandizement, his sentences drip with the aura of someone the world’s failed.
When Walker’s words read like an indie rock ballad, which is often, they do so in a self-aware manner, suggesting how an overly sentimental lens was a generation’s undoing. The narrator’s declaration that a high school sweetheart "wasn’t the hill I was meant to die on" sounds ridiculous given the hills he almost does die on in Iraq, and comprises such a precise rendering of the language and attitude of a circa 2004 teenager that it makes the contrast even starker. The opening chapters, depicting the narrator’s Cleveland adolescence, are rife with this brand of trumped-up vainglory, all of which is swiftly exposed as the spoils of privilege upon his deployment. The narrator and his girlfriend Emily "have wild fucking arguments about different things—God, Oasis, my insufferable arrogance."
Cherry’s arc is reminiscent of Ron Kovic’s Born on the Fourth of July in that both are broken into rough thirds: a charmed before-the-fall youth, the horrors of war, and the trials of re-adapting to civilian life. They are inversions of the American Dream conveyed by veterans of unpopular foreign wars, capturing a perspective underrepresented in literature. Unlike Kovic, Walker’s narrator doesn’t return from war any the wiser, and considers himself effectively the same shithead he was before his tour. More significantly, he doesn’t harbor any of Kovic’s sense of duty or patriotism; enlistment just seems like the natural thing to do when he flunks out of college. "I had a well-cultivated sense of shame," he admits in a rare glimpse of his deeper motivations.
As far as his before-the-fall persona goes, Walker’s narrator is a bit of a misanthrope even as a teenager, a turn-of-the-century burnout as opposed to Kovic’s ‘60s idealist. Visiting an old flame attending college out of state during his first semester, he attends a frat party "playing a song that was popular then. It was a song about making all the females crawl on the floor and jizzing on them and stuff." Later, he notes flatly, "It got a little awkward when you were the one who was there at the party with the girl who was on top of the bar, fucking a spirit. It got so you were at a loss for things to do in the meantime."
His skepticism endures into boot camp, but Walker’s tone abruptly pivots from smarmy balladry to the gruff seen-it-all voice of a soldier once he reaches Iraq. If his impassive narration was put-on before, in the Iraq scenes it’s a mechanism used to keep him from plumbing the depths of trauma in real time. In one jaw-dropping scene, a cadre of grinning NFL cheerleaders arrives to the base minutes after a pair of casualties are flown home in bodybags. The narrator is disinterested in the U.S.O. visit, less out of disgust than malaise: "You were supposed to want to fuck them and they were supposed to not fuck you."
The narrator recognizes the absurdity of the characters around him, particularly senior commanding officers with their pathetic marriages and obsessive tics. While introduced as caricatures, it becomes clear that these stunted man-children and their unhealthy relationships are products of their profession rather than their personalities. Yet the narrator, too, is guilty of chasing a World War II-era pipe dream, convincing Emily to marry him and elevating her as an object of exaltation even though he knows she cheats on him while he dodges landmines in Iraq. "There’s no such thing as a nice guy," he tells her during a transatlantic phone call. "Believe me. I’m as nice as they get and I’m a total piece of shit."
The soldiers are specific in their frivolities but anonymous as people. The narrator isn’t particularly curious about the men inside the vests, and doesn’t feel real camaraderie with them until they turn up dead. The female soldiers are portrayed as shameless whores, accentuating the post-apocalyptic pallor of the base where men spend long nights watching violent pornography, a hobby the narrator affirms is bad for morale because it confirms their sexual repression. There are some Catch-22-esque episodes lampooning the foibles of military preening and inefficiency, the lack of organization and overabundance of testosterone. Dumb soldiers get smart soldiers killed, the American servicemen are oddly chummy with their Iraqi counterparts, and the Toby Keith song is ubiquitous even during official Army ceremonies.
As a medic, the narrator feels unequipped and overworked, short on supplies and requisite knowledge. When tasked with tending to maimed civilians he’s rarely able to do more than apply bandages, and his commanding officers couldn’t care less. He’s quick to provide morphine and soon begins tending to his own psychological pain with recreational drugs sent by friends back home. This, too, makes for a coherent portrayal which holds the military-industrial complex accountable: the soldiers are hooked on drugs not because they’re poor criminals with slim prospects, but because they’re broken of body and mind, injected with opiates every time they get beat up and welcoming the relief of weed and pills after long days of killing.
The narrative undergoes a final shift in tone once the narrator returns home to Cleveland and his drug habits become more destitute. His self-hatred balloons with suicidal visions during internal monologues. As an addict he’s brutally calculating, willing to abase himself in virtually any way imaginable to score his next fix. Both his dealers and the women who keep opening their arms to him and his supply are afforded the same brusque indifference as his Army peers. The addicts wander through Cleveland like zombies, automatons responding to dull stimuli.
Here finally the listless lethargy he adopted as a teenager reads as true. The career inertia, purported disregard for people he loves, and transactional relationships seem the final manifestation of the values bestowed upon him by suburban angst, slacker films, and emo rock. As ever, the desolation here isn’t overdramatized because it doesn’t need to be. In the book’s most unforgettable episode, a "desperately retarded" woman begs a dwarf for a hit of heroin. The most excruciating scenes—a nurse explaining how he buys OxyContin off his poorest patients, a baby mewling in the backseat as his impromptu guardian negotiates a deal up front—are abject on their own but debilitating given the circumstances which produce them.
In Cherry’s final chapters, the narrator’s high-risk life of crime is muted by the monotony of his addiction, yet routine dope pickups begin to amass the air of heist films. "The story of being a dope fiend is people will lie to your face and you can’t call them on it lest they not give you what you need when they get around to it," he narrates, lambasting the lack of loyalty among his new friends. He doesn’t even hesitate to buy heroin in front of cops, on the off-chance that they’re waiting for a different moment to bust his dealer. After getting set up by the police himself, he tells a disconsolate Emily, "This may come as a surprise to you, but the police think we deserve to die." He buys Oxy with his Pell Grant money.
There’s a certain poetry to the narrator’s brief career as a bank robber, during which he reclaims a small pittance from the very institutions which devastated the U.S. economy. But he still feels for the tellers and managers he holds up at gunpoint, victims of the same pressures and appetites as he:
"Usually the tellers are pretty cool: you give them a note or tell them you’re there to do a robbery, and they go in the cash drawers and lay the money on the counter, and you take it and you leave and that’s all there is to it. Really it’s very civilized. It’s like a quiet joke you’ve shared with them. I say joke because in my case I don’t imagine there was ever one to believe I’d do anything serious if push came to shove, though I do make it a point to try and at least look a little deranged because I don’t want anyone getting in trouble on account of me. I do have a lot of sadness in the face to make up for, so I have to make faces like I’m crazy or else people will think I’m a pussy. The risk you run is that sometimes people think you’re a crazy pussy. But I have to do what I can; otherwise her manager might say to her, “Why’d you give that pussy the money? You’re fired!” And she goes home and tells the kids there isn’t going to be any Christmas."
It’s easy to dismiss the opioid crisis as a Trump state cause, the type of thing Chris Christie can advocate for without fear of alienating a deeply racist base. But Cherry’s greatest triumph is that none of its catastrophes exist independently of one another, the natural progression from high school stoner-dom to skyrocketing tuition costs to Forever War to insufficient healthcare to overprescribed addicts to mass incarceration an inevitable one. A beautiful 317-page gut punch, the Great Cleveland Novel if Cleveland will have it, Walker’s book is both a wistful eulogy and a searing indictment, one which stops short of proposing solutions because are you fucking kidding me?
Purchase Cherry at your local independent bookstore.