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The book "Cherry" was a 2018 bestseller. It's semiautobiographical novel by Nico Walker, who was a decorated Army medic in Iraq. Then he came back and became addicted to heroin and started robbing banks. "Cherry" is now a movie by the same name. NPR's Andrew Limbong caught up with Nico Walker, who is now out of prison.
ANDREW LIMBONG, BYLINE: The movie "Cherry" stars Tom Holland. You might know him as Spider-Man from the Marvel movies. And it's directed by the Russo brothers, who directed "Avengers: Infinity War" and "Avengers: Endgame," which happens to be the highest grossing movie of all time.
NICO WALKER: That in and of itself was pretty overwhelming.
LIMBONG: Nico Walker wrote the book, published it and sold the rights while he was in prison. He wasn't paying much attention to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but he knew it was a big deal.
WALKER: I had never seen any of those films, and I had to kind of take people's word for, you know, what was going on.
LIMBONG: "Cherry" reads the same way Walker sounds - dry, crass and sometimes ha-ha funny, other times funny in a heavier way. Late in the book, after getting back from Iraq, addicted to heroin and a few bank robberies under his belt, the unnamed narrator is eating dinner at his parents' house. His mom does the dishes. Walker writes, I didn't ever have to do the dishes since I got back from Iraq. My mom thought I was a hero. I wasn't. But then I didn't try to correct her. Not that I wanted to lie by omission about being a hero, I just didn't want to have to explain anything.
TIM O’CONNELL: And it feels, to me, uniquely American in its tone.
LIMBONG: Tim O'Connell edited the book "Cherry" for Knopf, and he says Walker was touching on themes timely then and still timely now.
O’CONNELL: It's talking, you know, the opioid crisis, the idea of vets returning and dealing with PTSD. Like, it touches on a number of very important topics while also - just, you can't put it down.
LIMBONG: Joe Russo knew 10 pages into the book that "Cherry" was the next movie he and his brother were going to make.
JOE RUSSO: It felt to me like the friends and family that were close to us that were struggling.
LIMBONG: They're from Cleveland, just like Walker. Joe Russo even worked at the same restaurant as Walker. Walker told me that he trusted how adamant Russo was about making "Cherry." But beyond the topical and timely themes of the story, Joe Russo says it was the character's voice that fascinated him.
RUSSO: He can't separate his life from its fictional influences. He's trapped in an artifice.
LIMBONG: In a way, that cuts through the fronts people put up.
RUSSO: To quote the book, you know, he says, "the drill sergeants were pretending to be drill sergeants. We were pretending to be soldiers. The Army was pretending to be the Army." It's all make-believe to him.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHERRY")
UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) So what makes a joker like you want to join the United States Army for?
LIMBONG: There's a scene in the movie where the character, played by Tom Holland, explains why he wants to join the Army, or at least he says what he knows to be the right answer to that question.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CHERRY")
TOM HOLLAND: (As Cherry) Well, I've just been seeing on the news, you know, that there are kids dying over there, you know?
LIMBONG: Director Joe Russo.
RUSSO: You know, he's stuck in this sort of referential echo chamber for which he can't escape, and that contributes to the decline of his mental health.
LIMBONG: For similar reasons, Nico Walker doesn't plan on seeing this movie based on his novel.
WALKER: I just don't think it would be good for me to see it. You know what I mean?
LIMBONG: We got to talking about other writers he admires, peers who haven't gotten the same opportunities. Walker wonders whether he deserves his success.
WALKER: You see these, like, billboards and like, you know, a whole street full of posters with Tom Holland's face on it. And it says "Cherry," you know, and all this stuff. And I'm just like, you know, I don't know. Is that even right?
LIMBONG: Walker got out of prison early on compassionate release to take care of his mom, who died of leukemia last year, but not before she read his book.
WALKER: I was glad to be able to do something to make her proud after so much infamy.
LIMBONG: She did ask him to not swear so much in his next book, which is going to be a third-person narrative inspired by his time in prison. Andrew Limbong, NPR News.
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