After an aimless young man joins the Army as a medic and serves in Iraq, where he and his fellow soldiers take drugs to numb themselves to the traumatic violence that both appalls and titillates them, he returns home even more aimless and embarks on a life of narcotics ingestion and crime.
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 ... Walker credits Tim O’Connell, his editor at Knopf, with transforming those typewritten pages into this tour de force. But when I contacted O’Connell, he claimed ... 'Nico simply poured everything he had into it.' That sounds right—and true to the searing authenticity of this novel, which tries to answer the question, 'How do you get to be a scumbag?' But in the process of laying out the road to perdition, Walker demonstrates the depths of his humanity and challenges us to bridge the distance that we imagine separates us from the damned.
War narratives usually fall somewhere on a spectrum between elegiac and ironic, and “Cherry” certainly skews ironic. Mr. Walker achieves this effect in the way he mixes registers, switching quickly between the slangy or ultra-simple and the literary or vaguely bureaucratic ... the humor in the book is a sort of anti-humor; it is deadpan in the extreme ... One of the chief pleasures of Mr. Walker’s writing is how it shies away from pretension, both stylistically and thematically, yielding memorable descriptions ... Mr. Walker’s crisp observations draw us in, so that we happily follow the narrator through the war, through his seedy life in sex and drugs, until he’s eventually robbing banks. There are no tricks in the writing, no striving for meaning on every page when there is not much more to relate than the drug-hunger that consumes an addict’s life. The book is wonderfully direct ... a bracingly original novel.
The unnamed narrator of Cherry, Nico Walker’s coarsely poetic debut ... provides an agonizing character study ... The book is gritty, profane, and raw ... Walker’s prose resembles that of Denis Johnson (particularly Jesus’ Son), only a little rougher around the edges. Indeed the writing here is conspicuously uneven. Its uncompromising nature at times feels less realistic than crude, less relentless than repetitious; character depth isn’t the primary goal here, but Walker doesn’t have a firm grip on Emily, a figure of both sympathy and culpability who lacks internal consistency. Walker’s expression still shines through. One major reason: Cherry doesn’t ask for pity. It presents a landscape ravaged by war and drugs, greed and pain, and introduces a voice that sounds ugly only until you read closely enough to see the beauty lying underneath an American tragedy.