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Nico Walker’s ‘Cherry’ is the harrowing story of an Iraq vet, told from a jail call

September 23, 2018

The history of “Cherry” is recounted in the few short pages of acknowledgements from Nico Walker after the novel’s close. Walker was contacted by the owners of a small publishing company during the jail sentence he is still serving for robbery. In 2013, encouraged to try writing his story, Walker submitted a manuscript he characterizes as “a plastic bin full of paper.” That manuscript was eventually optioned by Alfred A. Knopf publishing and has already been reprinted twice since its publication at the beginning of August 2018.

Walker’s debut novel is most assuredly not popular summer reading. It is a raw and devastating look inside war and addiction. Some will consider it profane, and others will consider themselves lucky to have found a book that illuminates where our country just might be at this moment.

First and foremost, “Cherry” is a remarkable and fierce coming-of-age novel. Its unnamed narrator is leaving the far edge of adolescence. He has tried the usual avenues available to someone his age and has found little hope in any of them.

His solution at age 20? Enlist in the Army. (A “cherry” is — beyond its crude sexual connotations — military lingo for “a new soldier,” particularly one who hasn’t yet seen combat.)

Nothing he has been promised by Army recruiters seems to come to fruition once he signs his enlistment papers. In fact, all he can admit as he awaits his transfer overseas is that, so far, rather than inducing hope of any kind, it all has been “engineered to induce fatalism in the young.”

His tour of duty is as a medic in Iraq, but he is incapable of curing much of what he encounters. It’s a tour that leaves him with too much time on his hands, punctuated by the occasional ambush or car bomb or sniper. It’s a life he calls “a macabre sort of block party.”

He tries to remain in contact with Emily, the young woman who has convinced him to marry her. He “tries to be good.” In his touchingly simplistic way, he envisions an eventual life where he and Emily “would have enough money and be middle-class and want for nothing and we would be independent of everyone and no old bastards who voted for wars could tell me anything because I’d done what they wanted.”

Yet there’s nothing heroic about his life in Iraq. No one ever thinks him heroic — least of all himself. In fact, the language of these sections is so rife, so reductive, with military jargon that we are as lost as he is. We don’t know any more about his comrades than he does, and so we are uncomfortably unmoved when he tells us of their future combat deaths. We become as inured to the life as he.

After a time, he admits, “We were ready for it to end. There was nothing interesting about it anymore. There was nothing. We had wasted our time. We had lost.”

The only respite from all this? Drugs from home: “If you could get somebody to mail it, and if they showed a little restraint, you were good.” This ease obtaining those drugs “sent in from the World” will also inform the harrowing final chapters of the novel, which deal with life after Iraq.

Life back home is little more than a life of addiction and petty thievery. Walker depicts that life with the same ordinary fatalism with which he has depicted military life. Civilian life is simply what it is: only “regrets and forgetting everything you had ever believed in.”

Yet Nico Walker never takes the easy road of pointing fingers or attaching blame. Life is what it is. The final moments of “Cherry” bring together that fatalism with Walker’s response to the misguided hope we are still expected to look for in the old American dream.

Those final moments, echoing most of what’s come before them, have an altogether heartbreaking and horrifying beauty.

Steven Whitton is a retired professor of English.

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