Book review: Cherry

By Patrick Stuart, BCW president

I’m a sucker for good books (big surprise). I’m an even bigger sucker for origin stories of authors who managed to get published under trying circumstances, usually involving some combination of talent, grit, happenstance and fairy dust. Case in point; John Kennedy Toole and “A Confederacy of Dunces.” Donald Ray Pollock and “Knockemstiff.” Lucia Berlin and “A Manual for Cleaning Women.” Or William Gay and “The Long Home.” But now it’s time to add another: Nico Walker, debut author of the autobiographical novel “Cherry.”

In 2003 Walker, at 19 years old and by all accounts a good kid from a wealthy Cleveland suburb, bouncing around in a dive band and toying with college, decided to enlist in the Army. He went to Iraq as a medic, got dumped in one of the worst parts of the war, and experienced daily exposure to some basically horrific shit. Walker returned with undiagnosed PTSD and went on to self-medicate with Oxycontin and heroin. To pay for his new habit, he became a bank robber. And for four months, he confounded police by robbing several banks for a total of about $40,000. Until the 11th bank turned into an 11-year sentence at a federal prison in Ashland, Kentucky (expected release date: 2024).

After becoming incarcerated, however, Walker’s story wound up in a long Buzzfeed article, where a small publisher ran across it. The publisher started a correspondence and asked him to write some pages. Realizing there was a bigger story in the making, the small publisher got a bigger publisher involved (Knopf Doubleday), and over a few years Knopf and Walker corresponded via typewritten pages and scheduled 15-minute prison phone calls. Long story short (pun intended, ha), a novel was born.

Here’s the kicker: “Cherry” is actually good. Keep in mind that the novel is essentially Walker’s life, with a first-person protagonist who closely follows his experiences in Cleveland, Iraq, then Cleveland again. Which makes for some intense reading that easily could’ve become a muddled, grueling and hyperbolic mess. But Walker’s protagonist is a combination of honest, funny, kind and depressing. The writing, despite the rawness of the material, is surprisingly tender and sweet. And much of the detail, especially involving military and drug culture, rings brutally realistic. But if you want an abject lesson in how to capture voice, holy mother of . . . this book could be taught at MFA programs. It’s that good. Keep in mind: “Cherry” is harsh, profane and deals with tough subjects. It’s not for everyone. But if you’re willing to take a chance, this will stick with you like a bad addiction.

(Cherry, by Nico Walker, Knopf Doubleday, pub. 2018)


Flash fiction winners: December 2018

Congratulations to this year’s winners of our flash fiction contest! The writers had 200 words to incorporate five words – icicle, sleigh, batter, regift and pine, or variations thereof – into a delightful little murder mystery. Our esteemed panel then narrowed down the field, and the winners were Alicia Anthony (first prize) and Eileen Curley Hammond. Congratulations! Here are their stories:

The Elf’s Revenge, by Alicia Anthony

The scent of pine assaulted my nose. Why these idiots kept moving me around, forcing me into embarrassing positions – sometimes involving a Barbie doll – I’ll never understand. Tonight I sat immobile in the center of the wreath, a prickly spike of evergreen stabbing me in the ass. Humans were ridiculously brutal, battering my arms and legs this way and that, turning and twisting them into whatever position they deemed worthy of Facebook.

Mr. C couldn’t have had this in mind when he assigned this mission. The Elf Workers Union had filed complaints, but so far, the big guy just, “Ho, ho, hoed,” his way out of the conversation. The world would regret ignoring us, manipulating us, regifting us when kids got too old. Tonight, I’d end the abuse.

I swung from the wreath and onto the mantle, sliding in my red onesie down the fancy woodwork to the floor below. The thump of sleigh runners against the roof launched me into a sprint. I yanked an ornament from the Christmas tree before tucking myself among the logs in the darkened fireplace. I braced the ornament between my hands. Exhilaration mounted. The metallic icicle speared straight up, waiting for its target.

(Untitled), by Eileen Curley Hammond

The twelve-inch icicle glistened in the sun. Fat water droplets slid down its length, falling to the bluestone patio far below. I shivered as I shut the window. There was so much left to be done. Michael was in the living room, feet up, watching a rerun of the World Series win. I squinted at the TV. Derek Jeter was the batter.

I picked up the wooden sleigh and some ribbon. With a quick bow, hot glue gun, and several pine cones, a passable centerpiece stood complete. The punch bowl landed on the table, surrounded by small cut crystal glasses. I glared at Michael. “Some help would be nice.”

He grunted, “Where’s my sister?”

“Probably puffing away outside. Would you please find her? It’s not like you don’t know the ending.” He hit pause and ran down the stairs.

I lifted the bright yellow scarf from Aunt Margaret. Definitely not my color. I slid it back into the box and wrapped it. Nothing wrong with a quick regift. Sort of like the thirty second rule.

Michael yelled from downstairs. “Come quick. It’s my sister. She’s outside. I’m not sure what happened, but she’s dead.”

I smiled.