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SOCIETY: Cherry — the fruit of experience

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Spotlight - epaper ⋅ Ausgabe 7/2019 vom 29.05.2019

Wie kommt man mit dunklen und verzweifelten Erlebnissen von Krieg und Sucht klar? Nico Walker hat sie in einem Buch verarbeitet. Er hat sich mit LORRAINE MALLINDER aus dem Gefängnis in Kentucky über seinen Bestseller „Cherry“ unterhalten.


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US Marines patrol Al-Karma, a Sunni town north-east of Fallujah in Iraq in December 2005

It’s 6 a.m. at the Federal Correctional Institution in Ashland, Kentucky.

This is where Nico Walker, the 33-year-old author of Cherry, a novel based on his real-life journey from college dropout to war hero to bank robber, has spent the past nine years.

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... the prison phone, he has been given no more than 15 minutes for our chat, regularly interrupted by a robotic voice announcing: “This is a call from a federal prison.”

Walker’s life is stranger than fiction.

Awarded medals for his bravery as an army medic, he took part in over 250 combat missions in Iraq’s “Triangle of Death” (an area south of Baghdad) from 2005 to 2006. Back home in Cleveland, Ohio, he suffered from extreme post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), finding escape in heroin and bank robberies.

Now serving the end of an 11-year sentence for the ten robberies he carried out over four months, he is living out the most spectacular plot twist of all, as the author of a literary hit. Written on a prison typewriter, Cherry has won enthusiastic reviews for its raw and wry story of a young, often misled, yet ultimately brave soul on a ticket to hell.

Overnight fame can be disorientating.

But being in prison has at least allowed Walker to keep both feet firmly on the ground. “I’m living in the same housing unit, with the same schedule as before. I eat the same food”, he says. “At the core of it, day-to-day, nothing has really changed. Everything is still prison.”

Right now, Walker is investing his limited telephone minutes in interviews and talks about an upcoming film, which will star Tom Holland of Spider-Man fame. “It’s a little overwhelming at times”, Walker admits in his slow, granular drawl. He comes across as polite and modest, considering each question carefully before answering. “I’m just grateful there’s interest”, he says.

When he gets out in a year and a half, Walker plans to move to a small town in Mississippi, where he will continue writing. He believes, though, that the success of his novel may have blown over by then. Judging by the reaction to Cherry, this seems unlikely.

The big question, then, is how much of Cherry is Nico Walker’s story? Where does the writer end and the narrator begin?

“The narrator has a voice that came naturally to me”, says Walker. “But I definitely wouldn’t say it’s me. My life is more complicated than a novel.”

In Cherry, the narrator stumbles into war, directionless after his girlfriend leaves town. In real life, the 19-year-old’s motives were more complex, driven by guilt at seeing kids his age going to war, and a desire to do his bit. There was also a need to “make people happy”.

Nico Walker says of his sudden success as a writer, “I’m just grateful there’s interest.”

“I wasn’t a total nihilist about it”, he says, with the laconic humour characteristic of his writing. It’s a big part of what makes the novel so terribly compelling.

Walker’s writing demonstrates an aversion to self-pity. Indeed, there’s a sense that he often downplays events. Take the effects of PTSD, which come across strongly in an interview he gave to Buzz-Feed in 2013. These included his inability to close his eyes without seeing images of Iraq, once going without sleep for as many as 21 days.

In the novel, such traumas are mentioned almost in passing, as the narrator’s existence narrows to the sole purpose of scoring the next hit of heroin to keep away panic attacks, sickness and hallucinations. “Maybe I was trying to go in a different direction, less about [making] ex cuses”, says Walker.

Having hit rock-bottom, the narrator turns to bank robberies. In real life, Walker had been misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder by an incompetent psychiatrist. Contemplating suicide, he had a sudden moment of clarity, which led to his first robbery. Lashing out in this way brought the same release of tension he would feel during high-stress combat missions in Iraq.

In a counter-intuitive way, the robberies may have turned out to be the salvation of this young man, a way to channel his anger and pain, which finally landed him in prison. Set in context, against the backdrop of a senseless war that cost hundreds of thousands of lives, the robberies seem relatively minor.

In the end, writing the book was therapeutic, providing psychological distance between the writer and the war. “It’s not an issue like it used to be”, he says of the PTSD. “There are still remnants of it left.

But there are a lot more recent memories. “At some point, you have to decide it’s in the past”, he says. “There’s no choice. You gotta keep going.”

How does a war hero turn into a serial bank robber?

Cherry — the novel that rocked America

How does a war hero turn into a serial bank robber? Nico Walker’s debut novel, Cherry, the painful story of an Iraq War veteran whose life spirals out of control when he returns home, is a work of fiction. But it mirrors the author’s own experiences of love, war, trauma, addiction and crime.

The novel’s descriptions of death and debasement burn themselves on to the mind’s eye. But the triumph of the work lies in its portrayal of a shattered soul looking for salvation in all the wrong places, lighting the way into hell’s darkest corners with futile flashes of insight and self-awareness.

He dares you to hate him. You won’t.

The story opens when life is just beginning for the unnamed narrator. He’s 18 and achingly in love with Emily, who is tough but compassionate — and real as can be. She tells him about “the abandoned factories and the cemetery where she’d grown up, the places where she’d skinned her knees. And her voice took me over”, he says. “This is how you find the one to break your heart.”

When Emily decides to study in Canada, the narrator throws himself into an army career. The brutality of army life comes across in his description of hair clippers that suck the hair up as they cut, pulling the scalp up into the blades. It’s a world of trashy banter and drill sergeants threatening to snap necks.

Soon, he’s in Iraq, his life at the forward operating base (FOB) centred around a strangely clinical constellation of army acronyms.

Early on, the “cherry”, or novice, gets his first close-up of death, evacuating a casualty from an overturned Humvee — “His eyes were wild and grieving. He was in his lizard brain”, he says. Later, he is shocked to learn that the man has died. But this is nothing compared with the horrors the narrator will go on to see.

While out on patrol, he is called to remove burned bodies from a blown-up Humvee. He describes stomach-turning scenes that linger in the mind. One of the bodies is “lying on its guts, face gone, head a skull”.

US Marines stuck in a sand storm on the road between Nasiriyah and Najaf on their way to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad in March 2003

“The smell is something you already know. It’s coded in your blood”, he says.

Those two brief sentences seem to contain everything we need to know.

The later shooting of an unarmed Iraqi man takes us from horror to sorrow. The narrator tries to treat the man’s wound, but fails to save him. Scenes of terrible grief follow: a screaming lady trying to pull the body from the unit, joined by a second, heavily-pregnant woman and two very young boys.

To keep his soul together, the narrator sticks images of IKEA furniture on to a Word document, dreaming of a future with Emily. But life at the FOB, where other recruits watch extreme porn and dream up sadistic ways of killing mice to pass the time, saps the spirit. By this point, the narrator has long woken up to the reality that he is a bit player at best, cannon fodder at worst. “We were just the help, glorified scarecrows”, he says.

He leaves Iraq with a feeling of “abandoning my people”, even though he realizes that nobody really cares. Soon, he’s “seeing ghosts”, “talking too goddamn much”, developing a serious addiction to OxyContin and eventually capitulating to the warm embrace of heroin. An attempt to seek help for PTSD fails when he is referred to a drug counsellor, who claims the war was already over when the narrator did service in Iraq.

“I was nothing then and I’m still nothing”, he says.

Emily will go on to become his fellow addict and partner in crime. It’s a long way from the innocence of their early romance. Like a broken Bonnie and Clyde, slowly killing each other with their corrupt complicity, they are too busy holding things together to detox. With nothing to lose, the narrator turns to bank robberies, an activity for which he has real talent, mainly because he’s long stopped giving a damn.

Life, the protagonist realizes, is “regrets and forgetting everything you ever had believed in”.

Cherry is like an arrow to the heart.

Deep within the squalor is truth — often unpalatable, always unmistakable.

US soldiers patrol Yusufiyah, south of Baghdad, in March 2008

Post-traumatic stress disorder — a soul wound

Long after the guns have stopped firing and the whistle of mortars has ended, untold numbers of veterans do battle with nightmarish flashbacks, struggling to process the moral complexities of war.

And yet, despite all the evidence that war leaves soldiers with hidden wounds, progress in diagnosing and treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been slow.

After the First World War, soldiers returning with “shell shock” — a condition so named because it was thought to come from brain injury caused by the sound of exploding shells — were viewed as weak. These men were often treated with electric shocks.

The idea that war could leave long-term psychological scars began to be understood after the Second World War, the Korean War and Vietnam. The televising of the 1968 Mỹ Lai Massacre in Vietnam brought the realities of war to America’s living rooms, creating a change in attitudes that finally led to the recognition of PTSD as a legitimate condition.

Nevertheless, veterans of more recent wars displaying the classic signs of PTSD, which include nightmares, insomnia, hyper-vigilance, guilt and anger, have struggled to access the help they need. According to a US Veterans Affairs study, 15.7 per cent of soldiers who served in Iraq and Afghanistan were diagnosed with PTSD.

Many therapists working with veterans now view PTSD as a soul wound. In his 2005 book War and the Soul, psychotherapist Edward Tick says: “Though the affliction that today we call post-traumatic stress disorder has had many names over the centuries, it is always the result of the way war invades, wounds and transforms our spirit.”

It’s also symptomatic of a wider problem.

For as long as our societies deny the dark moral truths of war, masking brutality with euphemisms such as “collateral damage”, too many returning soldiers will struggle alone. War brings unspeakable horrors. But the truth must be spoken.

War brings unspeakable horrors. But the truth must be spoken

Books written behind bars

Don Quixote, by Miguel de Cervantes
This great story about the original “knight in shining armour” and many a damsel in distress gave us the adjective “quixotic” (idealistic and impractical). Cervantes is said to have written the novel while in prison for debt problems in late 16thcentury Spain.

De Profundis, by Oscar Wilde
Ireland’s celebrated playwright was jailed in England from 1895 to 1897 after details of his homosexual affair with British aristocrat Lord Alfred Douglas were made public. Wilde wrote De Profundis, a 55,000-word letter to his lover, while serving his two-year sentence.

In the Belly of the Beast, by Jack Henry Abbott
In the late 1970s, Jack Henry Abbott, locked up in a Utah prison, began writing to the author Norman Mailer. Impressed with Abbott’s literary ability, Mailer encouraged him to write a book about life behind bars. After his release in 1981, Abbott killed a man in a bar fight. He went back to prison, where he later committed suicide.

Conversations with Myself, by Nelson Mandela
A memoir by Nelson Mandela, one of the 20th century’s most iconic figures, who spent 27 years in prison before leading South Africa out of apartheid. The book includes letters, notes, diary entries, random reflections and other writings that Nelson wrote in his darkest hours.

Orange Is the New Black, by Piper Kerman
Piper Kerman was a young college graduate when she got involved in international money laundering and drug trafficking. A decade later, the law caught up with her. Her memoir of the 13 months she spent inside was an instant success, inspiring a hit Netflix series.

The film rights to Walker’s novelCherry were bought for $1 million. The actor Tom Holland is set to play the main character.

Fotos: Laurent VAN DER STOCKT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images, Privat

Foto: Laurent VAN DER STOCKT/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Foto: ALI YUSSEF/AFP/Getty Images