Review: ‘Cherry’ by Nico Walker an honest story of addiction

by Lucy Turnipseed | 10/10/19 2:00am

It’s strange to say, but I did not notice the narrator had no name the entire time I was reading Nico Walker’s novel “Cherry.” It was only when I sat down to write this review that I realized the person whose deepest thoughts I had been reading was unnamed to me, however fictional or autobiographical he may be.

“Cherry” quickly became a nationwide sensation, debuting on the New York Times best seller list immediately after its release in 2018. Currently serving a prison sentence for bank robbery, Walker wrote his novel behind bars and is on track to be released in 2020.

The narrator of “Cherry” tells a deadpan story of a man’s journey from college student to army medic to opioid addict and bank robber. Although not explicitly autobiographical, the novel mirrors much of Walker’s own life. Each step is underwritten with melancholy.

Immediately upon beginning the novel, the prologue tells the reader exactly what is to come: an odd sense of normalcy atop a great crisis. The picture Walker depicts is one of heroin addiction fueling the lives of a nice-seeming couple in school who live with their pet dog. Despite the apparent normalcy of the narrator and his girlfriend Emily, Walker writes a heartbreaking story of how addiction engenders the downfall of these two individuals.

Walker’s voice, never angry but always vivid with description, helps the reader understand the answer to a question the narrator poses: “How do you get to be a scumbag?” 

This first section, “Part One: When Life Was Just Beginning, I Saw You,” introduces readers to Walker’s voice right from the get-go. Walker’s voice is not self-conscious and he does not sensor his thoughts, which felt like a rare occurrence in a novel dealing with heavy subject matter such as drugs and crime.

The first chapter begins in earnest: “Emily used to wear a white ribbon around her throat and talk in breaths and murmurs, being nice, as she was, in a way so as you didn’t know if she were a slut or just real down-to-earth.” To me, this didn’t seem like the beginning of a story about addiction. For a novel written by a man behind bars about what can be assumed are his own crimes, the opening is sweet and innocent — far from the intense, grimy story I expected to witness.

The narrator relays the bleak picture of his stint in college, feeling largely without a purpose. Working a few minimum-wage jobs — for distraction but not out of necessity — and finding little meaning in his college classes, the narrator feels disconnected and uninspired. When Emily decides to transfer colleges and a friend enrolls in the marines, the narrator decides to give the Army a shot in an attempt to gain perspective in his life. 

“Part Two: Adventure” and “Part Three: Cherry” give the reader an account of the Army that reflects the scenery in Iraq, where the narrator’s unit is deployed. Life in the Army is dry, repetitive and, in the midst of the monotony, violent.

While enlisting, the narrator recounts that he and his fellow recruits “looked like s—. We’d grown up on high-fructose corn syrup, with plenty of television; our bodies were full of pus; our brains skittered.” Walker paints a bleak picture of modern day life that hints to the cause of the narrator’s eventual downward spiral toward drugs and robbery.

Often in Iraq, “the heat and the light made your brain skip when you tried to hold a thought. Thoughts wouldn’t come in a straight line, and you saw translucent red stars.” Walker’s vivid imagery transports readers to the gruesome reality of another step in the narrator’s meaningless existence. Despite having a supposedly meaningful job as an Army medic, in reality the narrator did not have much more to offer the locals than ibuprofen although he was hailed as a healer to Iraqis. 

With little else to do or look forward to, we see the narrator acquiring small doses of illegal drugs and alcohol to numb the pain of his existence and paving the way for his descent into addiction. Often, the narrator’s behavior is described with crass language, but Walker is nothing if not truthful in this novel.

When the narrator returns from Iraq, he knows his now-wife, Emily, has been cheating on him. It was a sham marriage — one of convenience for the health insurance — but the love the narrator has is real.

In a depressed state after the Army and his crumbling marriage, now with much easier access to alcohol and drugs than in Iraq, the narrator seems more lost than usual. “Part Four: Hummingbird” shows the narrator as helplessly restless living on an army base with nowhere or no one to call home. 

After his divorce, a move back to Cleveland, OH and a series of lovers, “Part Five: The Great Dope Fiend Romance” gets at the highly anticipated heart of the matter, which is what I thought I would be reading about the whole time.

When I began the novel, all I wanted to do was get to the part that explained the bank robbery and the heroin who had become a part of the seemingly respectable couple’s daily routine. I looked at the section list in the table of contents and reasoned I would have to wait over 200 pages to understand. If you’re looking for a novel about high-stakes bank heists and gritty scenes of drug abuse, perhaps turn elsewhere. “Cherry” is not a fast-paced novel but rather a narrative of a man’s struggle to find meaning in the world around him. Although not what I anticipated, “Cherry” was more than I bargained for. It was a beautifully written explanation of a life that was derailed, not due to drugs, but a sense of emptiness and longing for more.

The narrator’s sojourn in Iraq and on Army bases in the United States, however, made me understand the trap of opioids and crime unlike dramatized versions of Ted Bundy’s serial murders or trashy true crime movies might have audiences believe. “Cherry” is a much more truthful account of what led the narrator to commit a series of robberies than any other crime novel or documentary I’ve encountered. Walker showed and did not tell the reader how the narrator ended up the way he did.

“There was nothing better than to be young and on heroin,” Walker writes when he is back in Cleveland with Emily despite their divorce. “The days were bright.” Walker doesn’t cast a shameful light on the narrator’s drug use, but rather, highlights the reprieve it brought him amidst his turmoil.

In the midst of his dope runs and web of relationships with dealers, the narrator realizes his and Emily’s addictions cannot be fueled by the fraudulent GI Bill and scholarship scam they have been running thus far.

Very much unlike any crime movie ever made, the narrator, with no training, no weapons and an improvised plan, steps into a bank for his first holdup.

The moral reasoning behind this act has nothing to do with a person being good or bad, according to the narrator. As Walker writes, “With robbery it’s a matter of abasement. Are you abased? Careful then. You might rob something.”

While the success of the first robbery appeases the narrator and Emily’s need for funds to sustain their addiction, they continue to turn to bank heists for money. Several robberies later, the narrator finds himself still desperate for funds, sick from withdrawal in the novel’s final section, “Part Six: A Comedown.” He commits another robbery, continuously vomiting. 

The narrator feels numb in his desperation for money and calm despite his distressful situation. Walker creates a fascinating juxtaposition between the narrator’s circumstances and his state of mind; when the narrator is away from crime and drugs he is lost and depressed, but in the midst of committing a bank robbery in pursuit of heroin, he ponders the value of life and feels like there’s finally potential for happiness in his life.

“I was feeling melancholy, but it was a calming melancholy. Life was f—ed but I was good … My heart was full and life was precious,” the narrator says of his eerie tranquility during the robbery. 

The best part of the ending, and I would argue the book, is how serene it is. Chillingly, the narrator relays that “there was hope for me yet. Life was good when you were cooking up a shot of dope; in those moments every dope boy in the world was your friend and you didn’t think about the things you’d done wrong and f­—ed up, the years you’d wasted.”

A little confusingly, this account finds beauty in a wasteland. These final lines plainly state the facts but are also complicated with the dual senses of potential and resignation.