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)