Is Nico Walker’s novel Cherry about war in Iraq or heroin addiction? Or is it about both? If so, what connects Iraq and heroin in the life and mind of its unnamed but clearly autobiographical first-person narrator? The first half of Cherry recounts the narrator’s life through deployment to Iraq as a medic in a combat unit in ways similar to Matthew J. Hefti’s A Hard and Heavy Thing, Brandon Caro’s Old Silk Road, and Maximillian Uriarte’s The White Donkey: purposeless young white male junior-enlisted soldiers, mostly unimpressed by anything the military has to offer, confront horrifying events that overwhelm their defense-mechanisms and occasion their dissolution into drugs, drink, violence, and anti-sociality. But the formula doesn’t quite work for Cherry. The second-half of the novel, in which the narrator describes his heroin addiction and the criminal capers he undertakes to finance it, refracted through his love for his fellow addict and soulmate Emily, seems thematically and tonally disconnected from the war-and-military sections. I came away from the novel thinking that military deployment mostly bored the narrator, and not much happened overseas that he connects to the verve of his drug-addicted, crime-ridden romance with Emily except that for a while it paid the post-war bills for love and debauchery:
There was nothing better than to be young and on heroin. Emily and I were living together. The days were bright. You didn’t worry about jobs because there weren’t any. But you could go to school so you could get FAFSA, you could get student loans and Pell Grants. And if you were getting G.I. Bill, that’d cover your tuition; then you didn’t need your FAFSA for school and you could go and buy dope with it instead. Which was all you really wanted. You could kill yourself real slow and feel like a million dollars. You could grow high-class weed in your basement and pay the rent like that. Of course the future looked bad—you went into debt, you got sick all the time, you couldn’t shit, everyone you met was a fucker, your new friends would eat the eyes out of your head for a spoon or twenty dollars, your old friends stayed away—but you could do more heroin and that would usually serve to settle you down, when you were going on 25, back when you could still fake it, and there was nothing better than to be young and on heroin.
For the narrator, heroin addiction is the logical culmination of love of getting high. He was plenty attracted to drugs before he joined the Army and deployment seems a soon-forgotten side-episode in what he considers the real story of his life. The military didn’t reform or save him, but it wasn’t his ruin, either.
Heroin addiction and overdose have wrecked my extended family’s happiness far more than anything associated with my blood-soaked and death-tinged deployment to Afghanistan, too, so I may be more receptive to Cherry‘s druggie aspects than most. But Cherry’s marketing material—book-jacket blurbs and Amazon testimonials—seems to agree with me that the novel is more junkie-romance than war-story. Lea Carpenter writes on the dust-jacket, for example, “Cherry is the debut novel America needs now, a letter from the front line of opioid addiction and, almost subliminally, a war story.” That “almost subliminally” is intriguing. Does Carpenter mean that Walker himself doesn’t quite understand how war and drugs are mixed up in his mind and life, or is she suggesting that the real war central to the American 21st-century is not the “war on terror” but the “war on drugs”? The great article or book connecting the two wars is there for the writing.
What’s without question is Cherry’s striking critical and public reception upon release. At last check, Cherry was far-outpacing other 2018 war-fiction releases on Amazon’s best-seller list. Advance readers and reviewers have been lavish in their praise; the quote from Lea Carpenter above is restrained compared to its dust-jacket companions:
“Someone once said there are two things worth writing about, love and death. Nico Walker may know more about these two subjects than 99.9 percent of fiction writers working today.”
“After reading this, you’ll say only one thing: Nico Walker is one of the best writers alive.”
“a powerful book that declares the arrival of a real writer who has made art out of anguish.”
Far more measured is a remarkable blogpost by Spoils author Brian Van Reet, a rumination on Walker and Cherry described by Fire and Forget author Jacob Siegel on Twitter as “one of the only essential pieces of cultural criticism that I read this year.” Van Reet nicely captures the dilemma of judging Cherry work-and-author fairly:
When I first heard of him [Walker] and his autobiographical novel, I confess my reaction to it was not-so-gentle bemusement. Oh great, I thought. An Iraq-veteran-junkie-bank-robber novelist. We have truly jumped the shark in this genre. Blame our sensationalistic media culture, which often functions to seek out and reward the very worst people. I feared the rest of us, in the wake of his book, would now have to deal with its confirmation of a damaging stereotype about this generation of veterans: that we are no more than mindless thugs who, by virtue of our participation in a criminal war, are criminals at heart, if not by the letter of the law.
On top of that, it seemed to me a dizzying moral abdication that so many literary journalists and book critics had taken it upon themselves to celebrate work by a convicted violent criminal from an affluent background, in a cultural moment when any number of male authors and editors have been lately accused of inappropriate behavior, which may not rise to the level of criminal offense, but which is nevertheless deemed toxic enough to warrant the ruination of their careers. Meanwhile, some of the same institutions and people most responsible for tearing down these “shitty men” in literature were now elevating Walker to literary celebrity, his career launched precisely because of his outrageously bad behavior.
So, another question: Is Cherry the apotheosis of modern war fiction, the book critics and readers have been waiting for all along? Or, is it the nadir, the repudiation of literary possibilities suggested by veteran authors such as Kevin Powers, David Abrams, Phil Klay, Matt Gallagher, and Van Reet himself? To be fair to Van Reet, following his skeptical start-point, he works toward recognition of Cherry’s appeal and achievement: the startlingly visceral illusion of clarity and honesty with which Walker presents the narrator, his tour in Iraq, and his love for heroin. In describing both hair-raising (and sometimes comic) scenes of combat and junkie degeneracy, Walker’s understated language mostly avoids sensationalist and melodramatic excess. The narrator doesn’t waste time in self-reflection or analytical explanation, which is a virtue in terms of sprightly story-telling, but also a weakness for readers curious to learn what Walker knows about “love and death” better than “99.9 percent of fiction writers working today.” More decidedly a plus, there’s a thankful lack of either apologizing or humble-bragging in the narrator’s account of his walks-on-the-wild-side, and even better is that Walker avoids the trap of stale media and public health buzz-words to describe his drug-taking: there’s very little mention of “abuse,” “addiction,” “rehabilitation,” “opioid epidemic,” “monkey on my back,” “overdose,” “clean,” “OD,” “drug fiend,” “junkie,” “addict,” or “war on drugs.”
The narrator’s prose voice seems intuitive and unrehearsed, though by Walker’s own report in the Acknowledgements the finished book is the product of many rewrites and much tough-tutelage administered by his publishing team. In other words, he worked harder on Cherry than anything he ever worked on in his life, save for scoring heroin and (perhaps, hopefully) making Emily happy, and the unadorned feel of natural genius is the product of extensive editorial curation. Whatever, Walker’s self-presentation is Cherry‘s strength; in the Acknowledgments Walker relates that he knew Cherry was getting good when one of his editors tells him that after a few dozen revisions the main character was no longer just an “asshole,” but an asshole “she kind of liked.” More Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries than Colby Buzzell’s My War, more Sid and Nancy than American Sniper, Cherry awaits your reading.
Also recommended: Jenny Pacanowki’s “Learning to Breathe Through the Journey of Addiction and PTSD.”
Nico Walker, Cherry. Knopf, 2018.