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October 2018 Issue [Reviews]

On Becoming a Scumbag

A poignant, profane novel of addiction

Discussed in this essay:

Cherry, by Nico Walker. Knopf. 336 pages. $26.95.

They start their day in the half-dark. She’s gone to take a shower. He’s picking through the house, looking for a shirt that doesn’t have blood on it. Used hypodermic rigs litter the cupboards, which must be bare of food. The dog has urinated on the floor. A dope boy named Black is expected by with their fix. Without it, she won’t be able to go to school—she teaches a literature class. But dealers have to be paid. He, we learn, has a bank robbery planned for later that morning.

The getaway doesn’t go smoothly, and as he flees, sirens approaching, he stops and takes in his surroundings, a manicured suburban street “where the grass is like a teenage girl.”

And the stoops!—the stoops are fucking wondrous! There’s a fuckload of starlings gone to war over a big wet juicy bag of garbage—look at them go! The big swinging dick starling’s got all the other starlings scared. He’ll be the one who gets the choicest garbage!

The question in Cherry—Nico Walker’s epic and exhilarating, foul and touching first novel—isn’t what happens next but how the bank robber and his woman wound up in this predicament. Cherry follows the novel’s unnamed narrator, a young man from the suburbs of Cleveland, as he meets a girl named Emily in college, falls in love with her, goes to Iraq as an Army medic, and upon his return slides with Emily into opioid abuse. He starts robbing banks to support their habit. These are roughly the facts of the author’s life. Walker was the child of well-to-do parents living in suburban Cleveland, eloped at twenty, served as an Army medic over an eleven-month stretch in Iraq in 2005 and 2006, sank into heroin addiction upon his return, divorced, and, five years later, robbed a prolific eleven banks in a four-month period. Walker was sentenced to eleven years in prison in 2012 and wrote the book while incarcerated.

A sandstorm near Karbala, Iraq, March 25, 2003 © John Moore/AP Photo

It is a remarkable accomplishment. As a confessional outpouring by a man trying to face his responsibility for all he has done wrong, it will shake your soul with vicarious grief. Its depictions of combat and addiction are carefully drawn and horrifyingly immediate, almost reportorial in detail. But even as Walker recounts the sometimes revolting depredations of war and drug use, his book is unaccountably fun to read—a page-flipper of a tragedy. In personality, his narrator bears some resemblance to the protagonist of Barry Hannah’s eponymous Ray: a doctor and veteran with a kind of antisocial outrageousness, who offends every propriety—bigoted, filthy, hateful, promiscuous, disloyal—but who has an appreciation for the beauty that more conventional people tend to overlook. Walker’s protagonist, too, even as he brims with bitter anger, is capable of empathy, and a dark, jaundiced wit. In his narration the book pours out smoothly, which is all the more impressive given its scope; it leaps from suburban America across the planet and deep into war, then down into the junkie’s underworld.

The story begins in earnest in 2003, with a portrait of the narrator as an eighteen-year-old college student. He’s sensitive, idealistic, unhappy, an underachiever, thinks poorly of himself. Ashamed of his middle-class affluence, he forces himself to work a six-dollar-an-hour job at a shoe store even as his parents are paying for school. He drinks and uses drugs, also deals to afford “the things he didn’t need.” Between his cigarette habit and his gray cardigan from the Gap (his “old sad bastard sweater,” Emily calls it), he cuts a careworn figure. Prone to carnal guilt, he believes that if you slept with her, “you were supposed to be in love with the girl.”

He meets Emily in communications class, around the time his high school girlfriend, Madison, commits an indiscretion with a lacrosse player in an Olive Garden parking lot. (Later, Madison severs things by leaving him a voicemail of her having sex with a man who “sounds like he’s wearing wraparound sunglasses.”) Emily is smart, tough, lovely, willing to sympathize with the narrator over his mistreatment at Madison’s hands. They hook up in an empty chapel at school under a wire-framed statuette of one of the stations of the cross: “I said to her it looked like a man suffering an accident while setting up a basketball hoop. And she laughed like she’d die laughing.”

He knows she’s the one, “the hill [he’s meant to] die on.” Estranged from her wealthy father after her parents’ acrimonious divorce, Emily has little money. She walks an extra half mile to shop for groceries at a cheaper store and works a job killing lab mice with miniature guillotines. (“She didn’t like it, but she figured the mice were doomed anyway and she needed the money.”) From the start, she is elusive. When the hero professes his love, she says, simply, “Thank you.” As the narrator says of her, “This is how you find the one to break your heart.”

Walker writes, in the first person, like someone talking naturally, unselfconsciously. He doesn’t watch himself. He flows. To hear him make music out of “cunts” and “fucks” is to be liberated, like a good conversation in a dark bar between adults drunk enough to not care about censoring themselves.

Things begin to come undone a month after the narrator and Emily fall in love, when she tells him that she plans to leave at the end of the semester and go to school in Canada. Distraught, he slacks off at school and takes a job at a local pizzeria, where his ineffectual attempts to toss the dough in the air cause the elderly, harmless-looking boss, Old Man Gerasene, to explode: “WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT, YOU COCKSUCKER?” One of the other waiters, a skinny white kid just like the hero except for the brand of cigarettes he smokes, claims to be intimate with one of the boss’s granddaughters, a “stacked” girl who wears alluring pumps “rain or shine.” “She likes getting that ass stretched out . . . and she buys me clothes,” he says. Walker’s literary self “[looks] up at the sky. Clearly this guy had the magic.” Back to making pizzas, he finds “every time I threw the dough and it spread out in the air I couldn’t help thinking about Gabriella and her dilating asshole.”

The chapter comes to a head when there’s a party at the restaurant and Emily shows up with another boy. The narrator, drunk, doesn’t acquit himself well, and late that night he takes her a batch of muffins as a peace offering. The passage has an almost children’s-story simplicity and sadness. The move from humor to poignant ache—with an edge of desperation—happens smoothly, and presages worse to come.

The narrator has dropped out of school and joined the Army before we understand why. Recruiter Staff Sergeant Kelly takes him next door to Bally Total Fitness to run a mile on the treadmill. The hero is wearing vegan shoes and his pants are falling down. It’s the first week of 2005,

and for a while the news mostly had been about kids going off and getting themselves killed and maimed, so Kelly and his like were having a hard time getting enough kids to sign up. But there I was, and I was too easy; I’d made his day.

Before Walker’s protagonist has even completed his Stateside training at Fort Hood, Texas, it’s clear he has made a serious mistake. He learns to run, march, shoot, do push-ups, and perform basic battlefield medicine, but his new skills aren’t worth much, or so he feels. During clinical training at a local hospital, he puts a blood pressure cuff on a patient’s arm backward and it “blows up like a life raft.” There’s a disconnect between the Army’s rhetoric of excellence (Army of One, Operation Honor Bright) and the dreary, trashy, lowered-expectations reality. “Were the outcomes of all the wars decided by push-ups and idle talk, America might never lose,” he says.

He’s at the mercy of petty tyrants. A commander revokes his company’s weekend pass for no good reason when Emily is coming down to see him. The hero must sneak off base to see her. Walker conveys the youth’s aching need to see his girlfriend. But far from being impressed by the way the military has transformed him, she heaps scorn on the protagonist, comparing him to a child: “Oh, well gee, sweetheart, I wish I could stay, but Sergeant Fuckass says I have to be in bed at FOUR O’CLOCK IN THE AFTERNOON!”

Ultimately, they decide to get married for the sake of couples’ benefits, but she insists they’ll get divorced later. He agrees; he’ll do anything to keep her.

“Cherry,” the section set in Iraq, takes us on such an all-consuming journey that we almost forget the shores from which we departed. It begins:

Unless you happen to have been there, you’ve never heard of where we were, so it doesn’t matter. There was an FOB, a forward operating base. The FOB had been built up around a power plant beside the river. The power plant was a monster of a thing and made all kinds of noise. It burned oil so oil was everywhere. Oil was in the air. Oil covered the ground. We lived in the shadow of the power plant, by the North Gate, in the Russian Village, which was a few buildings, concrete buildings, close together.

There is no shortage of books, films, and TV shows on the Iraq War, including the HBO series Generation Kill; Colby Buzzell’s memoir My War; Black Hearts, by Jim Frederick; The Good Soldiers, by the journalist David Finkel; House to House, by David Bellavia, who was nominated for the Medal of Honor for his courage during the second battle of Fallujah; Marcus Luttrell’s Service, which discusses operations in Anbar province; and The Deserter’s Tale, by Joshua Key, a soldier who went ­AWOL and fled to Canada. These fall roughly into three groups: accounts by non-combatant journalists and writers (who generally sympathize with the troops and the Iraqis but condemn the war); testimonies of born soldiers such as Bellavia and Luttrell, who find meaning in what they did; and testimonies of more ordinary soldiers, who are ambivalent about it. Nico Walker is a dissident. His perspective is most like that of Joshua Key, who deserted out of moral abomination at what he says he witnessed in Iraq.

Walker’s narrator rebels at the apparent pointlessness of the mission. It has been observed elsewhere (see Neil Sheehan’s A Bright Shining Lie) that American troop units rotate out of a war zone just when they’re learning how it works. This happened in Vietnam and it happened in Iraq. New arrivals get a crash course from seasoned soldiers through right-seat, left-seat rides, but it’s rarely enough. Hard-won knowledge doesn’t get reliably passed on; it goes home with the departing troops. In “Cherry,” the new unit has to learn the hard way, by trial and error. The fog of war besets them. Novice commanders, hungry for action, wander around getting the lay of the land, dragging the protagonist and his fellow soldiers after them, exposing them to sniper fire and ­IEDs. Nothing gets done. Political arrangements bar the American troops from interfering with a local Shiite militia, the Iraqi police, or the Iraqi Army, all of which are of suspect loyalty. A sense of impotence and vulnerability prevails.

The infantilizing pointlessness of it all makes it harder to bear the heat, the shit flies that land on his lips, the stink, the sleeplessness, and the risk of death or maiming. The narrator describes the ghoulish effects of an IED blast in extraordinary, vivid language that is among the best war writing I’ve ever read:

I looked again at the body of the gunner. He was burned away, scraps of ­IBAS clung to his torso, legs folded up, femurs and tibias and fibulas with black tissue, arms melted, body eviscerated and lying on its guts, face gone, head a skull. The smell is something you already know. It’s coded in your blood. The smoke gets into every pore and into every gland, your mouth full of it to where you may as well be eating it. . . . A burned-up hot-white skull, empty sockets, teeth clenched like they’ll shatter. . . . Muscle tissue is slick black, hot enough that the latex gloves break on contact. Hands burning too much, I’ve got to set him down.

There is much depressing absurdity, as when the soldiers rush outside during a sandstorm that’s also brought badly needed rain. After a while they realize the rain is raw sewage from a “porta-shitter” blown aloft by the storm. In another moment, a reporter from Army Times photographs the protagonist bandaging the hand of a seven-year-old Iraqi, while, just outside the clinic (and outside camera range), an infantryman named Borges is teaching about a dozen Iraqi children the shocker, a sexual technique: “He arranged his fingers just so. He said, ‘Two in the pink. One in the stink.’ They went, ‘YAYAYAYAYA­YAYAYAYA!’?”

Eventually, the hero’s unit begins going out on raids. They hardly ever encounter fighting-aged men, just women, children, and the elderly. One of the most morally troubling aspects of any war, and the Iraq War in particular, is when soldiers—groups of young, excited, armed men—come into contact with civilians by bursting into the intimate confines of a family home, especially at night. It is a situation ripe for transgression—vandalism and theft of civilian property, humiliation, torture, sexual assault, and murder. Predictably enough, on one such operation the hero is involved in the utterly pointless killing of an Iraqi man and his pregnant mother. As a medic, the hero doesn’t kill anyone directly, but he fails to save them.

By the end of his deployment, time and distance have fatally strained his relationship with Emily. The protagonist begins breaking down into the worst version of himself, drinking himself blind, eating pot brownies, Percocets and Oxys mailed from the States, huffing inhalants, consuming pornography:

We watched the Fuck Van a lot. The Fuck Van was the last thing we needed to see. The way the Fuck Van worked was the Fuck Van would cruise around looking for young women to video getting fucked in the Fuck Van. . . . The Fuck Van was bad for morale. Guys argued about whether the Fuck Van was actually real.

In childlike fantasy, the narrator, trapped in the baking FOB, goes through an ­IKEA catalogue and considers

what kind of furniture Emily and I would buy when we went to live together. I thought if I did this shit in Iraq and I lived through it and I saved some money, it would be enough for me and Emily to start a life together.

But when he returns to the States, he learns that Emily has been cheating on him. “My last three months in the Army, down in Texas, I was drinking two fifths of gin a night. I shit blood. I farted blood. I jerked off in bathroom stalls.” After leaving the service, he returns to Ohio, stopping in Elba long enough to grant Emily the divorce she wants. But then, claiming he has forgiven her, he begs her to stay with him—and she accepts. The hero is doing all the drugs he can lay hands on, including opioids like Vicodin and ­OxyContin. What seems ominous and hard to understand is that Emily—beautiful, golden, honors graduate—would take drugs as well. In truth, he wants to punish her; he wants company in his misery—which he admits: “I guess I wanted her to feel like shit.” Finally, he gets involved with another woman—in fact, an underaged girl from Spain—to revenge himself on Emily, and this sends Emily packing.

With his conscience deadened by drugs, and unafraid of consequences in the wake of Iraq, the protagonist again drops out of school and begins shooting heroin. A few years pass. He goes through a series of young lovers: Zoë, Libby, Megan—“Some girls I didn’t deserve. Some girls I did.” All are mere substitutes for Emily.

Emily, we learn, has been living in Florida with her dad. It must be that whatever resolution she hoped for with him did not pan out, for she has also started injecting heroin. Limited as we are to the narrator’s perspective, we never learn why, exactly—she is as much a mystery to us as she is to him. But it seems clear enough that her father is for her what Iraq is for the protagonist: a force that grinds out hope and leaves her cynical and misused and morally debased. Having accepted defeat, she is now ready to make a deal. The hero reconnects with her at a Greyhound station. She’s on her way to Elba and has a three-hour layover. She says she wants to get high. They meet his dealer and shoot up. They’ve both had some hard miles by now, including, for Emily, a near-death experience due to accidental overdose. They’ve both been unfaithful. There’s no more room for pretensions of innocence, and there’s a kind of possibility in this. They miss each other. She’s willing to come back to him. All she asks is that he take an HIV test, which he does.

At first things seem to go well. “There was nothing better than to be young and on heroin. Emily and I were living together. The days were bright.” But their addiction is mercilessly expensive and unsustainable. They spend ­FAFSA and Pell Grant money on dope. The hero spends his days hustling and scheming. Their existence rides precariously from day to day on whether they can score. Awareness of the impossibility of going on like this sends them into panic, and the only thing that offers respite from the horrifying mess they’ve made is more drugs. They’re trapped. A drug dealer named Gary charges the protagonist $180 for a fix, precipitating a fight with Emily: she’s scared. To feel better, they shoot some pills. Then this, as they huddle together in the brief shelter that the pills have carved out for them:

Emily pressed against me. “Hmm . . . how come you never fuck me anymore?” she said.

“I love you too much.”

“You can fuck me in the ass if you want.”

“I’d like that,” I said. “But my heart’s totally broken.”

“So’s mine.”

“I know it is.”

How do you get to be a scumbag?” Thus begins the book’s final section. The protagonist, spinning down the vortex of drug addiction, is living a sad parody of a marriage with Emily. Both are in dire straits. Crisis has become normal, and he starts robbing banks to defray his debt to a dope dealer who threatens him. Norman Mailer had a theory that your best move is right next to your worst move. The hero’s bank robbery has something of that dual nature. The robberies call on the same skills he learned as a soldier—operational planning, composure under fire. Indeed, he demonstrates more steadiness during the robberies than the drug dealers who are assisting him. It is their unreliability that will lead to his capture.

The hero anticipates his arrest. As the end approaches, we sense a sea change between him and Emily, a growing tenderness:

I’d get sad as fuck when I thought about Emily. . . . I wondered what would happen to her and what she would do [after I got arrested]. And we were sad when she found the abscess in her arm. Her forearms were swollen. There was all this shit in her right arm. She was pushing it out and she said, Look. It was like dirt. We cleaned it out and treated it with alcohol many times and the abscess got better but she was frightened and ashamed and it was terrible. I thought, My poor angel.

The persistence of their love is deeply moving. But despite the power of this ending, the protagonist (and no doubt Walker himself) has much to answer for. Early in the text, he says of Emily, “If my life got fucked it wasn’t her fault. I should say that now.” This is a gesture at a moral act, a message perhaps to the real-life Emily, assuming she’ll read the book, or to God. And yet all the evidence in this dark story suggests that the hero felt and acted in the opposite manner, in his heart of hearts believing that Emily was to blame for everything. The complexity of the relationship between hero and heroine makes the novel endlessly troubling, morbidly fascinating. To what extent is each of them guilty of or complicit in his or her own destruction? To what extent is each of them guilty of or complicit in the other’s destruction?

On what will be one of his last days with her, the narrator kisses Emily’s ear as she lies in bed and presses a bag of dope into her hand. She tells him he doesn’t have to wait on her account; he should go ahead and weigh it out. She’ll be down in a second. She has to pee. “I love you,” the hero says. She says, “Mmm. I love you too.”

Then the stunning final paragraph:

I went downstairs and split up the dope. It was three light. Never mind. I’d get it back. I put a shot together. There was hope in me yet. . . . I put the needle in my arm. The needle was dull so it pushed the vein away when it was going in. But the vein couldn’t run forever. I felt a little pop and the blood flashed in the rig. I sent it home.

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