Cherry (Walker)

Nico Walker, 2018
Knopf Doubleday
336 pp.

A breakneck-paced debut novel about love, war, bank robberies, and heroin

Cleveland, 2003.
A young man is just a college freshman when he meets Emily. They share a passion for Edward Albee and Ecstasy and fall hard and fast in love.

But soon Emily has to move home to Elba, New York and he flunks out of school and joins the Army. Desperate to keep their relationship alive, they marry before he ships out to Iraq.

But as an Army medic, he is unprepared for the grisly reality that awaits him. His fellow soldiers smoke; they huff computer duster; they take painkillers; they watch porn. And many of them die.

He and Emily try to make their long-distance marriage work, but when he returns from Iraq, his PTSD is profound, and the drugs on the street have changed. The opioid crisis is beginning to swallow up the Midwest. Soon he is hooked on heroin, and so is Emily. They attempt a normal life, but with their money drying up, he turns to the one thing he thinks he could be really good at--robbing banks.

Hammered out on a typewriter, Cherry marks the arrival of a raw, bleakly hilarious, and surprisingly poignant voice straight from the dark heart of America. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio

Nico Walker is originally from Cleveland, Ohio. He served as a medic on more than 250 missions in Iraq. Currently he has two more years of an eleven-year sentence for bank robbery. Cherry is his debut novel. (From the publisher.)

Book Reviews
You won't hear Nico Walker on a book tour anytime soon because he’s serving two more years in prison for bank robbery. But don’t wait to pick up his lacerating new novel about the horrors of war and addiction. Cherry is a miracle of literary serendipity, a triumph born of gore and suffering that reads as if it’s been scratched out with a dirty needle across the tender skin of a man’s forearm.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

The rare work of literary fiction by a young American that carries with it nothing of the scent of an MFA program.… The voice Walker has fashioned has a lot in common with the one Denis Johnson conjured for his masterpiece Jesus’ Son.… A novel of searing beauty.

One of the summer’s most exciting literary breakthroughs, Cherry is a profane, raw, and harrowingly timely account of the effects of war and the perils of addiction.
Entertainment Weekly

Some readers may find the innumerable descriptions of… [addiction] suitably transgressive. For everyone else, …the novel [may] feel like it’s willing to describe the catastrophe of its narrator’s life, but not truly examine it.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review) [A] sad love story and a raw tale of a young man's downfall owing to war and its aftermath.… A raging, agonized scream of a novel and a tremendously powerful debut. —Lawrence Rungren, Andover, MA
Library Journal

(Starred review) Unsparingly raw and utterly gripping. This is an astonishingly good novel, written by someone who clearly has a gift for storytelling. Walker’s characters, even minor players and walk-ons, are beautifully drawn. His dialogue rings achingly true.… A masterpiece.

(Starred review) [U]nsettling debut [of] a young man raised in the middle-class comforts of America encounters war, love, and drug addiction.… A bleak tale told bluntly with an abundance of profanity but also of insight into two kinds of living hell.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
We'll add publisher questions if and when they're available; in the meantime, use our LitLovers talking points to help start a discussion for CHERRY … then take off on your own:

1. The novel poses (and tries to answer) this question—"How do you become a scumbag?" In the arc of this story, how does one, or at least the book's narrator, become a scumbag? In other words, trace the trajectory of the narrator's downfall: from his first days in college, through his war experiences, and then back home with Emily. Was there one particular tipping point, was it his basic personality, or simply the totality of his experiences?

2. Follow-up to Question 1: Consider the inverse path this novel follows. In many war novels, joining the military and heading to war is a crucible that forges the hero/heroine's maturity. In this case, the narrator's battle experiences transform him into an antihero, with, as the New York Times review puts it, "no sliver of redemption." Is that how you see storyline? Or do you see it differently?

3. We meet the narrator in 2003 when he tells us...

I sold drugs but it wasn’t like I was bad or anything. I wasn’t bothering anybody; I didn’t even eat meat. I had a job at the shoe store. Another mistake I made. No interest whatsoever in shoes. I was marked for failure.

What do make of his self-assessment? What does that passage reveal about the kind of man he is?

4. Why does the narrator fall for Emily? How would you describe her? When they decide to get married, why does Emily say, "But we're gonna get divorced"?

5. How culpable is Emily for the narrator's drug addiction? What role does she play in his deterioration?

6. What prompts the narrator to enlist in the Army? What is his attitude during training?

7. How well is he (or any of the soldiers) prepared for the war he encounters in Iraq? Talk about the narrator's tone of voice as he describes his time overseas. Is his tone angry, cynical, morose, hopeless, perhaps even flippant?

8. Follow-up to Question 7: What were your feelings as you read about the Iraq experience? What surprised you, shocked you, angered you, or confirmed your suspicions about the conduct (on all sides) of the war?

9. Talk about how the war affected the narrator? What role did it play in his downward slide into addiction? Given the media focus on veterans' mental health issues, would you say the narrator's experience is typical?

10. What do you know about addiction: the chemistry involved, its effect on the brain's physiology, the availability and protocols for treatment, and especially the success/failure rates of treatment?

11. In one of the few negative reviews for the book, Publishers Weekly writes, "it feels like [the novel is] willing to describe the catastrophe of its narrator’s life, but not truly examine it." What do you think? Do you agree or not and why (or why not)?

12. Overall, how did you experience the book? Does knowing that Cherry is autobiographical and that its author, Nico Walker, is serving time in jail have any impact on how you read his novel?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online and off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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