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The Story Behind the Statistics

Cherry by Nico Walker (Knopf, 2018)

Last year the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the NIH declared that 130 people in the United States die after overdosing on opioids every day. Multiples more overdose and survive, as did the narrator of Cherry, a ferocious and exhilarating, typewritten-from-prison debut novel by Nico Walker. Told in the first person by a nameless young man, the narrative charts his course through a constellation of crises afflicting contemporary life in the U.S., crises that threaten to erase his story entirely, folding it into yet another austere NIH statistic. Like nearly three million others since the declaration of the U.S. War on Terror, the narrator has a history of military deployment. Like nearly three-fourths of active military personnel, he is a millennial. A twenty-five-year-old veteran suffering from post-traumatic-stress disorder and addiction at the epicenter of the Midwest opioid epidemic—a.k.a. our hero.

Set in a milieu where few expectations exist and fewer still endure, Cherry depicts an institutional trajectory woefully familiar to many Americans. After he is expelled from college, the novel’s protagonist does military service in occupied Iraq, then returns home to a life defined by criminality and the constant threat of incarceration. (One more statistic: roughly 180,000 veterans are currently incarcerated in the U.S.) In other words, the depressive addict of Cherry mirrors contemporary American society: its economic malaise, afflicting working-class Americans and millennials alike, its opioid crisis, its War on Terror—and their combined psychological toll, including post-traumatic stress disorder and associated affective and physical disorders.

With an upbeat prologue, the narrative roars off, and from that point on our heart never stops pounding, much as it would like to, because everything is going too fast. He’s already into drugs. He’s a dropout with a shitty job. He’s eighteen, falls in love, and ruins that too. He enlists in the army, only to discover that he’s color-blind. No problem, he’s told, because he already knows what color blood is. Between bursts of anguish and laughter, the reader witnesses all hell breaking loose in Iraq. Cherry is, then, the story of a color-blind young man— a “cherry,” a virgin soldier on his first deployment in Iraq—discovering the significance of the color of blood. The blood of others—and his own.

People kept dying: in ones and twos, no heroes, no battles. Nothing. We were just the help, glorified scarecrows; just there to look busy, up the road and down the road, expensive as fuck, dumber than shit.

As in Miles Lagoze’s powerful documentary, Combat Obscura, the only sense to be made of all this is that anyone making any sense out of it is lying.

After he returns to the Midwest, heartbroken and traumatized, our hero tells us the story of how he sold his soul and became a junky. His sense of the world as unreal causes his alienation from society to deepen. It also makes all of his relationships pathological and destructive. He rejects being “normal” because, ultimately, he doesn’t know how to cope with being around “normal” people, and nothing now is “normal” to him. This down-and-out narrator is a familiar figure in this peculiarly USian genre, the drug story, an essential part of this country’s most transgressive fiction. In Cherry, however, it is the social crisis in the U.S. that opens the door for the character’s downfall—and then pushes him down the stairs just behind that door.

In Walker’s telling, it is the tone, rhythm, and humor that make his story compelling and writing riveting. With Walker’s provocative, scintillatingly raw prose, the novel stirs together criminal associates, military argot, ultra-violence, and sexual obscenity. Into the mix, it then adds some disappointment, socio-economic precarity, a spoonful of heroin, and a gun. The result: a twenty-five-year-old bank robber with an eleven-year jail sentence.

In this work of autofiction, Nico Walker takes a deep dive into the vortex of addiction in today’s United States. A love story, a war story, and in many ways, the story of a generation, Cherry surges forward until it finds an opioid wave that is impossible to ride. As this wave crashes and breaks, the story itself is shattered as well. After the war, a form of boredom settles in, and Walker’s writing, like his story, falls into a dark, flat place that is stylistically attractive in its crispness. The beat is gone. Stymied between claustrophobia and exhaustion, there is nowhere left to go, nothing left to do, and we too are lulled into the junkie’s routine. Society around Walker’s protagonist is quick to judge but offers little in the way of assistance, even when help is sought: our protagonist encounters a psychiatrist who refuses to hear anything but numbers and a drug counselor who deems him incapable of suffering from PTSD, because “when he was in Iraq, the war was already over.” Trapped in a vicious circle, readers, like the protagonist of this ingenious and powerfully moving novel, will find it very hard to break away. The downward spiral of another potentially beautiful mind, together with the obscurity, sadness, and desperation of Walker’s world, make this story a very American nightmare.


NEFELI FORNI received the Francesca Bartrina Prize for best gender thesis of Catalonia for her work “The Plumber: Study on the socializing effect of pornography”. She has worked in translation and education, and has taught Culture, Gender and Environment to unaccompanied minor refugees in Barcelona. She is currently a graduate student in the Comparative Literature department at UMass Amherst.

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