Nico Walker’s Cherry Might Be the First Great Novel of the Opioid Epidemic

Nico Walker wrote Cherry, his first novel, on a typewriter in a federal prison in Kentucky where he’s serving 11 years for bank robbery. It’s the tormented confession of a doomed romantic. After returning to Cleveland from a tour as an army medic in Iraq, Walker developed a heroin addiction that turned him into a criminal. His narrator undergoes a similar descent. The narrator isn’t named, and I had a hard time not thinking of him as Fuckhead Jr., because the voice Walker has fashioned has a lot in common with the one Denis Johnson conjured for his masterpiece Jesus’ Son. There isn’t the shadow element of spiritual questing in Cherry that you find in Johnson’s stories, and since half the novel takes place in a war zone there’s significantly more gore as well as the nightmares that accompany a witness of carnage. And unlike most narratives of addiction and derangement, there’s no coda of conversion and sobriety. In its place we have the knowledge of Walker’s imprisonment and the novel itself — the rare work of literary fiction by a young American that carries with it nothing of the scent of an MFA program.

Instead, Walker’s prose style has the sound of mid-20th-century American writing — so much so that you think you’re reading a book from the 1970s until a reference to Modest Mouse or Oasis or internet porn arrives to remind you that you’re in the presence of an author and alter ego who grew up during the 1990s. In the Acknowledgements, Walker writes that in 2013 he was contacted by Matthew Johnson, an editor for the independent press Tyrant Books, who sent him a collection of Barry Hannah stories after reading an article about him — there was a lengthy profile in BuzzFeed — and in the course of their correspondence suggested he write a book. Tyrant’s editors then passed on the manuscript that’s become Cherry to Knopf.

In the manner of a classic noir, Cherry begins with the narrator and his ex-wife at the bottom, shooting up in a squalid apartment with dull used needles. He passes out and she puts ice in his underwear because she’s afraid he’s overdosed. They’ve already become a ghoulish parody of suburban domesticity, with a dog who urinates in the living room: “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. And we stayed dope fiends. And now we are dope fiends with a dog.”

Cherry is entirely free of the sentimentality of the pet owner. Whereas the dead dogs in Phil Klay’s story “Operation Scooby,” from his overrated National Book Award–winning collection Redeployment, serve as overwrought symbols of the horrors of war and post-traumatic stress disorder, the dog in Cherry is just an animal that hasn’t been house-trained because she’s in the care of drug addicts. Waking up high on the floor of your kitchen with ice packed around your genitals may not be the best sign that it’s a good day to commit a bank robbery, but the narrator sets off for the robbery that will get him arrested. Once inside the bank, Walker indulges in a bit of deadpan didacticism:

“Usually the tellers are pretty cool: you give them a note or tell them you’re there to commit 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 all very civilized. It’s like a quiet joke that 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 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 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.”

That “sadness in the face” and the idea that an armed bank heist is a sort of joke — these are as close as Cherry gets to traditional psychologizing. As the novel flashes back to the narrator’s freshman year at a Jesuit University outside Cleveland, his betrayal by an ex-girlfriend, his falling in love with the woman he would marry, her departure from Ohio to transfer to a school in Montreal, his flunking out of college and subsequent enlistment in the Army, there’s a chain of causality, but each link, right up to joining up, is undertaken as if thoughtlessly. The narrator wasn’t fated by class to become a soldier, a junkie, or a bank robber. His parents are middle class, undivorced, and supportive if not strict. Similarly, the narrator’s heroin addiction isn’t a state of being with one particular trigger. Knowing of his descent in advance, we hear with dread that during basic training he’s punched in the groin as a prank by a fellow GI and prescribed morphine for his swelling testicles. We think, this exposure must be what did it. But it isn’t.

Instead, Cherry provides a meticulous narrative of opioid addiction, one of the most detailed account I’ve seen in American lit — alongside Jade Sharma’s novel Problems and Michael W. Clune’s memoir White Out — since we became aware that the country was experiencing an epidemic. There’s less an arc or a downward spiral than a very gradual sinking. In Iraq the narrator receives painkillers in the mail from friends and sniffs chemicals used to clean computers with other men in his regiment during downtime. Back in Ohio, he takes dead-end service jobs and moves among young people in a scene where heavy drinking and casual drug use is de rigueur. He’s let down by VA therapists and distances himself from his family. He writes poems and sends them off to The New Yorker to no response, a desperate echo of his romantic Salinger-reading teenage self. When he reunites with his ex-wife, she already has an opioid habit. When Percocet pills start to be sold in a way that makes them impossible to cook up and use intravenously, they become entirely dependent on heroin to get their fixes. More and more the only other people in their world are the dope boys who service their habits, sometimes to the tune of more than $1,000 a week, and occasionally rip them off by selling them a bag full of mashed potatoes. A cash shortage, a bad deal, or an absentee dealer can leave them sick for days. They go back to school so that they can use a combination of G.I. Bill money and surplus federal student loans to buy drugs. They take to growing marijuana in their basement. When the narrator starts robbing banks it’s out of total desperation for money and the heroin it buys.

The war passages in Cherry have a shape not unlike its tale of addiction: things get worse, though without discernible logic because the wider dynamics of the war are obscure to the grunts who only learn details about attacks they’ve witnessed from Yahoo News. Because of a shortage of medics, the narrator has a grueling schedule of tours “outside the wire” in an unnamed Shia city. He tends to the casualties of his fellow soldiers and of civilians. He sees a lot of corpses, many of them burned up from IED explosions with the fleshy parts melted away. The body count accumulates without any noticeable shift in the dynamic of the war (these scenes are set in 2005 and 2006). The narrator is immune to patriotic cant, an attribute that alienates him from other soldiers. At army ceremonies, the narrator always mentions that “they played the Toby Keith song” (presumably “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” which provides the book an ironic epigraph) and the ritual is always hollow. Inside the wire, the Americans play poker, watch pornography and Faces of Death, and chain-smoke. A pair of soldiers down the hall make videos of mice dying by various cruel methods. One of their wives informs him that she’s started working as a stripper and cheating on him. “She told him all this shit in more detail than you’d have expected she would. It seemed a little overvindictive, but in her defense she was hot and Corporal Lockhart was the type of guy who went around crucifying mice.”

The only humor in Cherry is black, and there are no silver linings, no false rays of hope. It’s a bleak novel, and the bleakness only occasionally relents around the love story between the narrator and his ex-wife, a story that ends in mutually enabled self-destruction. Emily is sweet, smart, and sexually generous but also elusive and unfaithful. The narrator never really seems to see her in full, as if she’s obscured both by his romantic feelings for her and his own emotional and mental damage. Similarly, his fellow GIs in Iraq are only ever fleetingly glimpsed, often just before they die, and the dope boys who take over his life are an all-but-interchangeable set of double-crossing parasites (who are also desperate themselves and the closest thing he has to friend by the end). But deficiencies of characterization don’t mar this novel. Instead, they’re intrinsic to its dark vision of the warping effects of the Iraq War and the opioid epidemic. The word for it is dehumanization. It was probably inevitable that a book like this would emerge from these twin scourges on American life abroad and at home, but it wasn’t necessary that it be a novel of such searing beauty as Cherry.

Cherry Might Be the First Great Opioid-Epidemic Novel