by Nico Walker
The Acknowledgment section at the back of Nico Walker's debut novel Cherry tells a story in three pages that's in some ways as interesting and disturbing as the one told at 300 pages in the novel itself. Walker, we learn, was in his second year of incarceration for bank robbery when he was contacted by an independent publisher who'd seen an article about him: a veteran of hundreds of missions in Iraq, a drug addict, and now a federal inmate. The publisher suggested that he write a novel. Walker initially balked but eventually generated a manuscript and sent it along. Tim O'Connell from Knopf bought the rights and suggested heavy edits to make the main character more likable. “If you've read this book and you thought the main character was an asshole but you kind of liked him,” Walker writes, “that was all because of Tim O'Connell.”
It's tough to tell if this is stoicism affecting honesty or honesty affecting stoicism, but regardless of who wrote this novel, it's a very strong debut. It's nothing recognizable in novelist Scott McClanahan's embarrassing blurb about Walker being “one of the best writers alive,” but it's very strong.
It tells Walker's life story in the kind of barely-at-all-fictionalized way that's a hardened fashion in 21st century fiction. The unnamed main character is a petty thief and drug addict who's deeply in love with his girlfriend Emily and who joins the army and has some strong reactions to enlisted life, as when he's getting his head shaved at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri immediately after signing up:
It wasn't enough for them that we had to pay them money for these haircuts that we were ordered to get; they talked shut to us too. They cut a kid's head so it was bleeding pretty good and he let on that he minded and they said he was a sissy. They wanted to know if he was from San Fran-sissy-co. Then they cut another kid and the blood was running down and they thought it was funny. They didn't get bored of it. They had special vacuum clippers that sucked the hair up as they cut. The suction pulled the scalp up into the blades; that was how come they drew blood so much. The fat [barber] and his women had to talk real loud so they could hear themselves over the sucking sounds. I wished death upon them.
The book is crammed full of drug use – the economy of it, the mindlessness of it, the pettiness and sordidness of it. This is the novel's life and atmosphere, and it's all very lapel-grabbingly done. But Walker – or O'Connell, or somebody – also works in a strong element of something that, seen side-on, looks a bit like romance. “Can you look back to when you met the one you loved the most and remember exactly how it was?” the narrator asks at one point. “Not as in where you were or what she was wearing or what you ate for lunch that day, but rather as in what it was you saw in her that made you say, Yes, this is what I came here for.”
The wearing thing about the novel – and also the main source of its dark charisma – is its steady undermining of this thready note of sweetness. Through all the misadventures of the narrator and his great love Emily, any saving prospects of their bond are always clouded by the coarseness and distrust that are the mainstays of every drug relationship:
A funny thing happened to me once: after we got married, Emily went and had electrolysis done, and then she took a series of lovers, and then there was the day that I found out I'd been something like the hundredth one to see her electrolysis. And this devastated me. But in all fairness: I had gone to Iraq. And in all fairness: our marriage was a lie. Maybe she'd thought I'd get killed and wouldn't ever find out.
Cherry (sporting the hideous US cover design that's seemingly required by law) is a stark story, told with a continuously disarming candor in a string of vividly-written vignettes. The vignettes themselves never really coalesce into a larger narrative, but that's something of a rarity in debut novels in any case. As it is, the book is well worth attention, somebody-or-other's very capable debut.
Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, theWashington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.