There is a long history -- from Marquis de Sade to Jean Genet to Iceberg Slim -- of the incarcerated writing great books inspired by what got them there. Nico Walker, a former war medic turned heroin-addicted bank robber now doing time in a Kentucky federal prison, has clearly mined his own biography for his debut novel, Cherry, a nasty blister of a book that shows a lot of promise but is ultimately hamstrung by its limited point-of-view.
First, the good: Walker’s prose is fantastic. Immediate, visceral, rife with authentic lingo, punctuated by gallows humor. It is absolutely the best thing about this book and kept me hanging on even as this Cherry soured.
So where does Cherry go wrong? Its unnamed narrator, Walker’s soldier/addict/criminal stand-in, is an underwhelming ne’er-do-well and adrenaline seeker whose apparent existential emptiness and comfortable background are never meaningfully interrogated. Its supporting characters are lifeless. Fairing worst of all are women, who are repeatedly reduced to sexual proclivities. Don’t even get me started on the narrator’s wife or their unconvincing romance.
For me Cherry falls flat, despite its raw promise. You may like this for the language and for the author's experiences brought to his fictional world, or if not, hope for better from Walker’s next effort (or from the upcoming Tom Holland movie adaptation). In the meantime you might also check out Redeployment by Phil Klay or Eat the Apple by Matt Young for equally authentic yet more self-reflective Iraq War stories written by veterans who were there. Or if opioid crisis literature is more your thing, try Opioid, Indiana by Brian Allen Carr or Ohio by Stephen Markley.