Nico Walker's newly released debut novel Cherry, written while in federal prison in Kentucky where he'll be until 2020 and based on the author's own experiences, is this year's literary Cinderella story.
Since debuting in mid-August, it has garnered praise from highbrow critics and a million-dollar film deal with the Russo brothers. It's both an ancient story we've heard before and one ripped straight from yesterday's headlines. An aimless kid from a comfortable family living in Cleveland's east side suburbs drops out of college and joins the Army. He's shipped off to Iraq and becomes an Army Medic, where he spends his days watching porn, huffing computer duster, taking painkillers, and going on an endless run of, by the author's view, useless missions. In this seemingly pointless war, he quickly finds he isn't saving lives so much as scraping bits of his friends into body bags after they've been blown apart by roadside IEDs. He makes it home alive only to face nightmares so vicious that he eventually turns to painkillers and heroin, and then bank robberies to fund his and his girlfriend's daily habit.
With a one-two punch of lacerating prose and dead-eyed wit, Walker details how the character's emotional trauma – echoing the author's own severe case of PTSD after he returned home from Iraq – goes tragically undiagnosed. His long downward slide continues until his life revolves around the next fix. "I was only ever afraid of one thing in my life, that I wouldn't be able to get heroin," the narrator says.
Christian Lorentzen of Vulture called Cherry "the first great novel of the opioid epidemic" and Ron Charles of the Washington Post said it was "a miracle of literary serendipity, a triumph born of gore and suffering that reads as if it's been scratched out with a dirty needle across the tender skin of a man's forearm." Covering a trifecta of contemporary issues – white male alienation, PTSD and opioid addiction – it seems to have struck a chord. After the New York Times ran an in-depth feature story, calling it an "unsettling literary novel," it debuted at number 14 on the bestseller list.
His unlikely journey to literary stardom began in 2013 when BuzzFeed ran an in-depth profile of his turbulent life with the title "How a War Hero Became a Serial Bank Robber." Walker's arrest in 2011 and subsequent indictment for robbing 11 Northeast Ohio banks barely registered in the local media at the time. A brief 2011 Sun News article noted a "University Heights man" was arrested for robbing the U.S. Bank on Mayfield Rd. following a car chase with police, and that the man was a suspect in other holdups. The lengthy BuzzFeed treatment two years later drew the interest of Matthew Johnson, co-owner of Tyrant Books, who contacted Walker in prison after reading the story. After a few months of sending him books to read – Walker devoured a lot of Thomas McGuane and some Henry Miller – Johnson told Walker he should write a book. Walker didn't believe him, but he began writing at night and sending pages to Johnson, who'd send them back with comments.
After several years of pounding out pages on an old typewriter, then revising them by hand, Walker sold the rights to Tim O'Connell at Knopf.
Unlike his narrator, who tumbles into a dark hole of scumbaggery he can't get out of, Walker's bad luck finally seems to be turning around. The Times piece led to an auction for the film rights to the story with several bidders in the mix. The only problem, in the course of that action, was they had to stop the auction when Walker ran out of minutes on the jailhouse phone.
Joe and Anthony Russo ended up buying it through their new film company AGBO. They plan to make it as their next movie after the sequel to Avengers: Infinity War comes out next year. According to a story in Deadline, they grew up in a similar part of Cleveland and "they too have lost friends to the ravage of opioids that made them want to put a spotlight on the problem."
"Really my luck is absurd," Walker presciently told Esquire in an interview published before the film auction. He had no idea how right he was.
Scene recently interviewed Walker by email to ask him about his novel, what it was like to write a book in prison, what's needed to address PTSD among vets and the opioid crisis, and whether he's going to continue writing.
No Good Guys, No Bad Guys
Cherry opens with a scene of the narrator in full-fledged scumhood. Starting his day unable to find a shirt without blood stains or pants without cigarette burns, he jokes about being "all heroin chic, like I were famous already." The dog has left a "lake of piss" in the living room and he laments not being a good pet owner even as he scrounges for a needle. He finds "the rigs in the cupboard are all blood-used and crooked, like instruments of torture ... they're dull, but they'll have to do."
Next, he overdoses and passes out. Then his girlfriend wakes him up by putting ice cubes on his balls. Somehow, they still manage to drop her off at school by ten.
This is all by page three.
The novel offers a disaffected take on a grimy subculture in recession-era Cleveland. The narrator comments on the city being "always dead" and living "on a street of red and white houses, where we don't belong." Later, right before he robs a bank on Coventry in Cleveland Heights, he complains about the tie-dyed street signs on Hampshire, saying, "I used to live here before they did that. Then I couldn't anymore. It was like finding out you'd had some shit on your face the whole time you'd been talking."
The book resists easy answers as to how he got here. His parents send him to a good private college where he meets the love of his life, Emily. Still, he can't keep a job, fails out of school, and spends his time drinking and doing drugs. When he finds out one of his friends might be joining the Marines, he enlists in the Army, perhaps because he's adrift and it gives him a sense of purpose.
"Before you go to war, you want stories, you know – that's the really tragic thing," Walker told Buzzfeed in 2013. "Because this is that story, and there are no good guys, no bad guys. And looking back, you think to yourself; What did you think was going to happen? Death or glory? And then you feel bad because this is exactly what you wanted. It's real easy to get into, and real hard to get out of."
I asked Walker if part of the reason he went into the Army is because he'd fallen prey to a culture of toxic maleness that sends young men off to war with the promise of action and adventure.
"I didn't want to give anyone the idea that the Army was an especially misogynist culture," Walker told me. "Most of the guys I knew in the Army were good, down to earth people. For instance, there were a lot of guys who became fathers at a young age and were in the military because it was the surest way to provide for their families. I've seen far more and far worse a misogynist culture on college campuses than I ever saw in the Army.
"But you're right, I did want to make a statement about how our culture defines what it means to be a man. To me, our culture rates killing as the ultimate realization of manhood, and I don't hold with that idea."
It isn't long before the "cherry" loses his innocence to gruesome killing and death in Iraq. At first, the war is painfully boring, and the narrator's life ironically doesn't seem to have changed all that much. He makes fun of "the Army pretending to be the Army." The men around him complain that they haven't gotten to kill anybody yet. Sometimes they shoot dogs just to kill something.
Then his fellow soldiers are hit by a roadside bomb, and he's sent to help them. To get there, he has to swim through a sewage canal while loaded down with armor, weapons and fire extinguishers. When he reaches the bombed-out vehicle, he asks where the casualties are and another soldier says, "They're already dead, you fucking asshole."
"I looked again at the body of the gunner," the narrator says. "He was burned away, scraps of IBAS clung to his torso, legs folded up, femurs and tibias and fibulas with black tissue, arms melted, body eviscerated and lying on its guts, face gone, head a skull. The smell is something you already know. It's coded in your blood."
The scene is based directly on Walker's real-life experiences. "I couldn't close my eyes without seeing that for a long, long time," he told Johnson of BuzzFeed. "You couldn't anticipate anything like that. It's so sudden and pointless and just meaningless. It's moral anti-gravity."
After that, the narrator and his fellow soldiers shoot a local unarmed Iraqi. Again, it's based on a real experience -- to this day, Walker still doesn't know whether the guy he watched get gunned down was actually an insurgent or was just running because he was scared. In the book, the narrator is supposed to treat the guy, but the victim dies. Then two women come out and begin pouring dirt on their heads, moaning and wailing over the dead man. Coming under fire, the men drag the body out, attach it to the hood of their Humvee, and drive back to the base.
"I'm completely out of my mind at that point," Walker told BuzzFeed. "I got back to the Bradlee, but no one wants to ride in the back of a Bradlee with a corpse, so we draped the guy over the hood of the Bradlee, like a fucking deer or something."
In our interview, Walker told me he didn't intend for his novel to take a stand for or against the war; he just wanted readers to feel what he and other soldiers felt, like the narrator who's dispatched to treat Iraqis with severe illnesses or wounds armed with nothing more than bandages and Ibuprofen.
"I just wanted to convey what it was like when I was there without any exaggerating to make it more interesting," he told me. "I don't know enough about the course of the war to be an authority on anything apart from what it was like where I was when I was there. I was only there for a year, less than a year actually. So, all I could do was give my perspective, offer no judgment outside of that, and let the reader figure it out."
Distancing himself from the story is one of the reasons Walker decided to write a semi-autobiographical novel instead of a tell-all memoir. (Also, of course, to avoid running afoul of Son of Sam laws.) This, and the fact that he claims that he's boring in real life. He changed a lot about the story to dramatize it and make it more interesting.
"You can't make a career out of writing memoirs, especially when you're not interesting," he said. "And I wouldn't want to write one anyway. Too many judgments in memoirs. A novel's better. What happens happens."
Sliding into the Abyss
After the obligatory hero's welcome back in the States, one to which he feels he is not deserving, the narrator in Cherry is immediately swallowed up by his old life in Cleveland. He begins his long, slow downward slide into addiction and bank robbery by hanging out with his friends, binge drinking and doing drugs. Despite having severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), he never gets treatment, much like Walker himself.
"In those years I didn't sleep and when I slept I dreamt of violence," Cherry's narrator relates. "I dreamt of Iraq. I dreamt of movies I hadn't seen. I would die in my dreams and not wake up. I'd be dead in my dreams and then die some more, and when I woke up I was tired. No matter what else, I was unhappy."
This passage closely echoes Walker's actual experiences following the war. As Johnson of BuzzFeed writes (in far less compelling and more histrionic prose than the author conjures up, I'd argue), "Walker found it impossible to fall asleep naturally. Ever. When he closed his eyes, images of Iraq immediately crowded his vision. Over and over again, he saw the man who had appeared in the field, saw him falling, watched him die a slow and agonizing death, a death followed by more deaths, and the unraveling of a mission into slaughter and grotesque absurdity."
At Walker's trial, forensic psychiatrist Pablo Stewart told the judge that Walker was the victim of "a grave clinical error that was very damaging to Nicholas in the long-run." Basically, the implication is that he self-medicated with heroin. In Cherry, however, Walker's narrator is so fatally self-destructive that the reader is left to wonder if anything could have helped him.
I asked Walker if he believes his life would have been different if he'd been given proper treatment for PTSD.
"I don't think the medical system could have helped me," he said. "I can't speak for anyone else but what's helped me the most has been time, distance between me and the things that happened."
The thing that's helped the most, Walker related in an interview with Esquire, is writing about it. "One thing I did do, and that worked for me, was a doctor here at the prison had me tell him over and over again about some traumatic thing that happened to me," he said. "And then when I wasn't there with the doctor, I was supposed to take time to write it down over and over (this was before I started working on Cherry). The idea was that, if you went over the thing enough instead of trying to avoid thinking about it, you would get so used to thinking about it that it wouldn't affect you like it did before."
"So, I tried that, and it helped. Whereas before I couldn't think of what happened without bringing myself three quarters of the way to a breakdown, after going over it so many times the memory of it didn't take me that way anymore. It got to be almost like it were something I had read about, something that had happened to someone else."
This is a Robbery
It isn't long before the narrator and Emily are using his student loan money to shoot heroin every day. Then the money runs out, of course, and they get desperate. Our narrator, who early on in the book is screwed over by a bank overdraft fee, turns to robbing banks. It feels like an impulse buy in the checkout line – except instead of grabbing a tabloid or breath mints, he passes a note to a bank teller.
"I don't imagine that anyone goes in for a robbery if they are not in some kind of desperation," the narrator says. "Good or bad people has nothing to do with it; plenty of purely wicked motherfuckers won't ever rob shit. With robbery it's a matter of abasement. Are you abased? Careful then. You might rob something."
He doesn't even bother to conceal his face, and it ends up on the local TV news. "No plans. No stopwatch. No ski mask. No gun," he says after his second robbery. "Because I didn't like shit like this I didn't give a fuck about doing it the proper way. Emily was sick and all it was was I had to rob the bank or go to jail and I could say I had tried."
In real life, Walker was similarly calm when he planned his first robbery. "I woke up that morning and knew that I was going to rob a bank," he told BuzzFeed. After going on house-to-house raids in the desert with an M16, he relates, robbing banks seemed easy. He walked out with his pockets stuffed with cash and scored more dope. Over the next four months, he robbed a total of 11 banks before getting caught.
One of the things that makes Cherry so interesting is that the narrator is such a royal fuckup – albeit a roguishly charming (and vulgar) one – that it's hard to imagine anything saving him. "Personal choice is certainly a factor," Walker told me. "But then there are things that are out of his control. Certainly, his circumstances are aggravated by his living in a backwards society that locks people in prisons for being addicts. Kind of took some of the impetus away to go and look for help."
Walker says it was extremely tough writing a book in prison, but the obstacles thrown his way have made him a much better, more disciplined writer. "A lot of thing slowed me up: the institution schedule, security procedures etc.," he said. "But I think in a way it all helped me. If I had written the book in a year, say, it wouldn't have turned out like it had. I wouldn't have had time to develop as a writer."
He doesn't know what he'll be doing or where he'll be living when he gets out of prison in 2020, which is when his sentence is slated to end. However, he does know one thing. "I plan to continue writing," he said. "I'm working on another novel right now. It's set in Cleveland."