I read Nico Walker’s Cherry in my quest to read a greater range of voices. I heard about it via Ron Charles’ review in the Washington Post (found here). Though Cherry‘s title page classifies the book as fiction, the life of its unnamed narrator closely follows the trajectory of the author’s life: Ohio → the Army → Iraq → PTSD → heroin → bank robbery. Though Walker is currently serving an eleven-year sentence, Cherry ends before any arrest or prosecution. With those kinds of similarities, it’s likely that much of Cherry is autobiographical with a few flourishes and name changes. Walker’s real-life story (here), shares a few vivid moments with the book.
When it comes to describing addiction in particular, Walker’s voice speaks straight to the reader:
[on shooting heroin] And it hit me and I was right as rain. If you know, then you know what I mean. If you don’t, don’t ever find out. (225)
Cherry has more than three sections, but it’s told in thirds: before, during, and after deployment. Some reviews have tagged this book as funny, but I don’t see it. The dry humor is predominantly in the first part. It’s the sort of matter-of-fact, self-deprecating humor that’s only funny when read the right way, at the right time, and in the right mood:
I feel bad about the dog sometimes. We had said, We’ll get a dog and we won’t be dope fiends anymore. So we got the dog. But we stayed dope fiends. And now we’re dope fiends with a dog. (5)
I sold drugs, but it wasn’t like I was bad or anything. I wasn’t bothering anybody; I didn’t even eat meat. (18)
What humor there is gets sandwiched between vulgar language and graphic sex. A search through my ebook pulled up 573 instances of “fuck” (nouns, verbs, and adjectives). Other curse words are sprinkled throughout. I don’t mind rough language, but the conversation about women and sex is tinged with misogyny that’s more tiresome than the language. This (the misogyny, not the language) is tamped down with his deployment because there’s so much else going on.
This is the first book I’ve read set against the Iraq War. Other books I’ve read that are set in wartime remark on that war via trivia, satire, or by connecting personal struggles to the larger aims of the conflict. Here, though, there’s little of that. Walker doesn’t give much context to the frequent patrols—they just happen—and while the small goals are evident (picking up bodies, securing an area) there’s no sense of a larger picture. Walker, in real life, participated in around 250 combat missions. Cherry‘s prose depicts a tired man, long past the point of burnout:
[…] the shit wasn’t any fun for me. All it amounted to was some more people were dead and Emily was probably getting fucked by other guys. Probably every time I cleared a house some fucker was balls-deep in Emily. I was lovesick. And yeah it must have been nice to be […] tough, to believe in this, to be a killer. But I wasn’t ever tough and I wasn’t ever gonna be. If I was some kind of veteran now it was only on account of luck that I hadn’t got my soft ass killed. Sometimes that’s enough to have somebody fooled. (176)
PTSD is mentioned and the narrator seeks treatment, but doesn’t get help. When he turns to heroin and opioids, the last act of the book becomes a chaotic mess. It’s a long quest to get high that isn’t glamorized in the least. He and the people around him are in so deep that they need heroin to not get “sick sick sick.” In poking through online reviews, there are readers who say this section is repetitive, no different than 100 other stories about addiction. At times, it was hard to not see this section like the first half of an Intervention episode on a loop but that doesn’t mean it’s poorly written or not worthwhile.
I think this repetition is effective—surprisingly so. Eventually I stopped trying to recall the names of all the people the narrator was getting high with, who owed money to whom, and who was sleeping with whom. None of the stated relationships in this book are deep; everyone is getting through one day at a time, sidestepping withdrawal by inches. This part of the book is repetitive because that’s how addiction spirals: It’s a horrible cycle of getting high, needing money, getting money, and buying drugs. The wrenching depression of this lifestyle, pared down as Walker portrays it, is horrific. There’s no larger story; there are no deep characterizations; just a terrible hopelessness.
I’m not sure how to rate this book. By many accounts now, it seems to be an autobiography hiding behind a fiction label and I’m not going to rate someone’s description of their own life. It’s not an easy read: It’s got misogyny in the first and third parts, graphic brutality in the second part, and despair at the conclusion, but I don’t regret having read it. It raises a lot of difficult questions about the ongoing war in Iraq, treatment of veterans, mental health, and opioid addiction that are well beyond the scope of this blog. I recommend it for that reason, though, because it raises important questions and not necessarily in a literary, bookish way. It’s hard to overstate its bleakness—parts of Requiem for a Dream come to mind for comparison, but Cherry seems to be based on an actual life and it’s more depressing for it.
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