MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
A debut novel called "Cherry" is getting a lot of buzz ahead of its release tomorrow. It has been called the first great novel of the opioid epidemic, also one of the best war novels in a generation. NPR's Quil Lawrence spoke with the author on the phone.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Nico Walker is in jail for robbing banks.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This call is from a federal prison.
NICO WALKER: All right, good, we got that out of the way.
LAWRENCE: He can use the pay phone for 15 minutes at a time, and then he has to wait half an hour. It took a while to do an interview. And that's also sort of the way he wrote his novel "Cherry" - on a typewriter with a hundred other guys looking over his shoulder.
WALKER: It was something that I was doing, you know, while I was locked up. You know, it was something to pass the time. You know, but I didn't - I wasn't planning to write a novel - you know, autobiographical or anything like that.
LAWRENCE: But it's pretty autobiographical. The unnamed narrator of "Cherry" is naked and vulnerable, literally. In the first pages of the book, he's stripped and gets ice shoved down his underwear. Walker's writing has a similar effect. The narrator and his college girlfriend fall into what they know is love but also know won't last. He drops out of school and joins the Army. Here's Walker reading from his novel over the lousy prison pay phone.
WALKER: (Reading) We would get married before I went to Iraq. She brought it up this time. She said it made practical sense.
LAWRENCE: The sound was so bad we had someone here at NPR read from the novel.
WALKER: (Reading) If we were married, I'd get...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) If we were married, I'd get paid more, and she could be on my health insurance. And I'd get to marry Emily. But we're going to get divorced, she said. I said that was fine. I said, we'll get divorced if that's what you want.
LAWRENCE: The humor works because Walker and his narrator have no pretensions, not about love or about being a combat-decorated Iraq veteran. Even in boot camp and heading for Iraq, Walker's narrator still feels like an impostor, and he suspects everyone around him does, too.
WALKER: (Reading) And Drill Sergeant Cole...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) Drill Sergeant Cole punched me in the penis for no reason. You'd have that, though. You just have to remember it was all make-believe. The drill sergeants were just pretending to be drill sergeants. We were pretending to be soldiers. And the Army was pretending to be the Army.
WALKER: (Reading) He had me do pushups till I reached muscle failure. It...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) It didn't take three minutes to get there. Still, I did a lot of pushups. I was good at them. Most of us could do pushups. And were the outcomes of all the wars decided by pushups and idle talk, America might never lose.
LAWRENCE: Walker writes about Iraq from a grunt's-eye level. The soldiers are playing video games, watching porn, huffing computer duster and also going on mission after mission to kick in doors. The narrator is a combat medic but still feels like a fraud when he fails to save the life of an Iraqi civilian. He spends less time treating his fellow soldiers than collecting their body parts after bomb attacks. By the end of his deployment, he's too tired to pretend.
WALKER: (Reading) The worst possible outcome was to get killed at the end after all the [expletive].
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) If you weren't going to go home, it was better to get killed early on. That was the logic. You didn't want to get killed at the end. Two from our battalion were killed that morning.
LAWRENCE: He talks his lieutenant out of a last dangerous foot patrol.
WALKER: (Reading) With all due respect, sir, they've got us...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) They've got us out here with three of the most obese [expletive]-bags in the company, and those are your dismounts. Think about it. Do you think you can take one of those guys dismounted, off road, in the [expletive] dark through all those [expletive] canals for a click?
WALKER: (Reading) That's going to make a lot of noise.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) That's going to make a lot of noise. Those hajis will hear us coming all the way. We might as well drag a [expletive] piano with us. I've seen those guys on dismount patrols before, sir. They're a [expletive] disaster. They fall all over themselves. Borges can shoot, but he can't walk for [expletive], and the rest of them are an out-and-out [expletive] liability.
LAWRENCE: The only people who talk about Iraq like that are people who've been to Iraq. But Walker claims no moral authority. After all...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: This call is from a federal prison.
WALKER: You know, one of the great things about being in prison for armed robbery is you don't really have a lot further down to go on the scale of reputation. You know what I mean?
LAWRENCE: The narrator comes home and gets mostly back together with his wife. They do divorce but then get wedded together by addiction, first to pills and then heroin.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) The story of being a dope fiend is that people will lie to your face. And you can't call them on it lest they not give you what you need when they get around to it.
WALKER: (Reading) Saturday was no different. Emily and I...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Reading) Emily and I awoke and shot up the last of our dope, and the day began. The day didn't begin until we had run out of dope and it was time to get some more.
LAWRENCE: And without any money or any dignity left and without much to go for him except a relatively cool head around guns and a total insensitivity to lawful behavior outside a war zone - well, you can see where this is going.
WALKER: (Reading) I had a theory. My theory was that I was a piece of [expletive] that deserved it when bad things happened to me. Was I bitter - a little of course. But a loss was a loss. You didn't ever get it back. Even if you recouped the money, the injury was still done. What was best was to write it off.
LAWRENCE: Walker has two more years on his sentence, but things are looking up. At last count, his book is sold in eight languages. Nico Walker says he's already using the money to pay back some of the banks he robbed. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
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