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...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...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.
Cherry professes to be fiction, but its plot is Walker’s life story — that of an aimless young man who signs up for the army in search of purpose but finds only futility. This is a coming-of-age novel, but one where the experiences to which the hero is exposed, which Walker tells in limpid, tragic detail, are so senseless and horrific as to make it impossible for him to grow into an adulthood at peace... Walker’s flat, guarded language falls well short of Mark Twain and JD Salinger’s camouflaged depths. The great love of the narrator’s life, who features frequently here, is oddly two-dimensional. And while his descriptions of battle and drug abuse are unsparing, the emotion of his experience never fully emerges from behind the tight-lipped facade. This is writing that foregrounds its innocence — and lacks the maturity that might have come from losing it.
Piper Kerman’s memoir about her prison stint, “Orange Is the New Black,” has been part of the cultural conversation since its 2010 publication. But writing books from prison — or mining one’s time in prison for book ideas — isn’t exactly new: Miguel de Cervantes did it. So did O. Henry, Ezra Pound, Oscar Wilde, Eldridge Cleaver, Jack Abbott, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, to name a few.
Now there’s Nico Walker, a decorated Iraq war veteran turned serial bank robber who wrote his raw, simmering autobiographical novel, “Cherry” — which debuts this week at No. 14 — in the middle of an 11-year sentence at a federal prison in Kentucky.