The latest book to feature in the inertia book club is Nico Walker’s debut novel ‘Cherry’ from back in 2018. This novel acts as a semi-biographical story of a kind of typical lost young man in middle America who tortures himself with cynicism and self-destructive tendencies. It seems as though now is an especially good time to take a look at this book, as a Hollywood adaptation of the novel, starring Tom Holland, is out later this month. So, what lies between the pages of this naughtiest American tragedy of war and addiction?
Firstly, one of the primary themes that I took from the book was a realism that has set in over in the US, where people are realising that the ‘American dream’ that was sold to them never really existed. This seeps out in every faucet of life and creates an internal hatred not just for one’s own country, but also themselves. The narrator of the book, a representative of the author himself, enlists to fight in the Iraq war after dropping out of college. Joining up with the US army takes our narrator to various nondescript camps and barracks in America before he can get stuck in on the ‘action’. This takes us to places that are very familiar to any fans of the classic film, Full Metal Jacket. Seeing behind the barbed wire of these facilities shows an almost beyond parody world of endless marches and terrifying drill sergeants, albeit through the hypercritical and nihilistic voice of the narrator.
I suppose that the entire novel is a kind of updated take on all of those Vietnam war movies and books that have been churned out over the years. Full Metal Jacket is one film that the book is particularly similar to with screaming sergeants, off-duty antics and fraternal bullying featuring more than the combat or even the war itself. There has, of course, already been a Bush-era adaptation for this genre of war movie in which the Yanks realise that they may not be the good guys after all. The Gulf War based movie Jarhead, released in 2005, must have been a pretty raw release at the time, with the Iraq war in full swing. This movie depicts the war and the realistic modernity of combat in an intriguing way. The enemy in Jarhead is seldom seen, as the testosterone fuelled soldiers chase shadows and run into constant traps and setbacks. The level of boredom and the constant question of “what are we really doing here?” drive whole squadrons to near insanity. The waiting and tedium of not knowing what is happening prove to be a major hurdle for the troops, with many tuning to drugs to occupy themselves, much like during the Vietnam war. What Cherry excels at, and what these movies did not have time to examine, is what happens when these traumatised and addicted soldiers return home?
The answer, in the case of Cherry, is an unavoidable descent into depravity. Upon his return our narrator stands little chance of re-joining normal life, even from his first weeks back on US soil in the barracks. Seeing your comrades in pieces and disfigured after an IED has ripped through their armoured vehicle is, I would imagine, a hard image to shake. This level of trauma cracks even our largely passive protagonist and he is never the same again. Any form of cynical nihilism is traded in for abject contempt for the world and himself. Nothing is ever O.K. and a melting pot of PTSD, addiction and various other mental issues regularly boil over which makes any semblance of a normal ‘American dream’ life even more unattainable.
All forms of idealism are well and truly in ruins when even a relationship with the love of his life turns viciously toxic. Both scraping by a college course whilst gravely addicted to opioids and heroin, it was only a matter of time before things collapsed. This part of the book offers an interesting perspective on addiction from Walker, largely talking about his affliction in terms of staving off the ‘illness’. The initial buzz and enjoyment felt upon each injection has quickly vanished and now the couple are just chasing the high just to avoid the withdrawals. As is often the case with drug addiction, the cost of the habit skyrockets as the users builds up a tolerance and to fund the addiction people turn to crime.
For author Nico Walker desperate times called for desperate measures and years of pain and trauma that came out in the form of opioid addiction. To simply afford avoiding the ‘sickness’ Walker resorted to robbing banks, which is maybe in a way another kind of Hollywood-inspired ‘American dream’. However, as with the idealised American life, this too is unattainable, and Walker was arrested and sentenced to 11 years in prison for bank robbery. This entire book was written behind bars and Walker was actually still in prison when the book was released, having only been released in October 2019. Some parts of this book are certainly very grim and can be difficult to read due to the subject matter, but for anyone willing to get past this Cherry is an enjoyable read that offers commentary on both the Iraq War and the opioid epidemic that still currently has a grip on many Americans. It may not be the most original or best written book in the world, but the book acts as an updated version of the ‘great American war novel’ of the noughties.
Words by Ewan Blacklaw