Cherry by Nico Walker review – a devastating debut

In this novel written from a US prison, an army veteran powerfully evokes the horrors of heroin addiction and the Iraq conflict

In Nico Walker’s debut novel, “cherry” is army slang for a green soldier newly arrived in a combat zone, but it also refers to the narrator, a very young man completely out of his depth in every situation in his life. He starts as an ordinary college loser. “I sold drugs but it wasn’t like I was bad or anything. I wasn’t bothering anybody; I didn’t even eat meat.” He gets wasted every day and has recreational fistfights with equally wasted friends; he can’t make his girlfriends happy and isn’t surprised when they continually cheat on him. The language itself can be a little aimless. Why did he fall in love with his wife? “I could say some dumb shit, but I really don’t know.” Why did she want to be with him, when he’s such a disaster? “[It] was a matter of fate, or something to that effect, what would bring us together, regardless if I ever deserved her.” What sells this is the naked sincerity, as when he describes meeting his wife for the first time and ending up in her dorm room crying his eyes out for no particular reason. “And she was really sweet to me. I don’t think there was ever anyone who felt more compassion for weak motherfuckers.”

The novel rises to a different level after he joins the army in the declining years of the Iraq war. The prose remains simple, but now it’s clearly skating over enormous depths, and Walker’s clear-sighted assessments of the army and the war cut effortlessly through generations of propaganda. On soldiers: “The thing is your average infantryman is no worse than your garden-variety sonofabitch. But he talks in dick jokes and aspires to murder and it doesn’t come off as a very saintly mode of being.” On the Iraq conflict: “I’d kicked a hundred doors in. More like two hundred doors. Nothing ever came of it … Just IEDs. Just kicking doors. More IEDs. More doors.” In Iraq, the narrator is a barely trained medic who isn’t even supplied with antibiotics, but is routinely asked to treat Iraqis as if he were a doctor. So he gives everyone ibuprofen and tells them to go to the hospital, knowing that sometimes he’s leaving them to die.

In one anecdote about arriving at boot camp, he coolly sums up the senselessness of war:

The group I came in with was B1, as in bravo one. That night another group came in, B2. We thought the B2s were decadent children … The B2s thought we were weird losers. The mutual enmity between B1s and B2s lasted three days; then we were redistributed at random into three platoons … and no one could remember who anyone was. The universal baldness made it difficult to recognise people. They packed us into cattle cars and we rode up the hill to boot camp.

And, inevitably, he has to deal with the aftermath of IEDs:

Caves and Rodgers have no faces. All faces burned off. No faces any more. Rodgers is in the body bag. A shook-up sergeant named Edwards tells me he thinks there’s some more of him still in the truck. He points to a string of fat running along what’s left of the driver seat, the frame of it. I don’t know what to do. I skim it off with my fingers, roll a ball of it, and throw it in the water. Then I walk down the road, gory as fuck, not making sense.

Like his protagonist, Walker is a veteran who developed a heroin habit after returning home; he wrote the book in prison, where he is serving 11 years for bank robbery. It’s true that Cherry often feels more like an improbably perfect series of war stories told in a bar than a novel. There are no real character arcs, and the relationships have no ultimate meaning; they last or fall apart for reasons the narrator doesn’t even try to understand. The plot refuses to yield significance. Throughout, the most exalted prose is devoted to drug experiences: “Big motherfucking shots we did. And our hearts were beating their wings slowly. We were saved. We felt like angels must feel like.” This all means that, despite the author’s remarkable storytelling ability, the novel can feel static. The peril is so constant it threatens to be boring. Nothing can happen but more of the same.

But that is also part of what makes the book exceptional and what makes it true. Its feeling of running on the spot is the experience of heroin addiction, of the Iraq war, of living with untreated PTSD. And if there are patches where the anecdotes all feel similar, they nonetheless have a cumulative effect, like a lesson repeated and repeated to someone who understands it but cannot change. This is a book that feels casually hilarious if you read a couple of pages; if you read a chapter it becomes impressive; and by the time you’ve finished, it’s devastating.

• Sandra Newman’s The Heavens is published by Granta in May. To buy Cherry for £13.19 go to or call 0330 333 6846.


Sandra Newman

The GuardianTramp

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