Brian Van Reet


“A New Kind of Desert”: A Reading of Nico Walker’s CHERRY
22 August 2018, 17:41
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I have a lot in common with Nico Walker, author of the recently released debut novel, Cherry. We both partied too hard and failed out of college in the early 2000’s, both then enlisting in the wartime army at twenty years old. After basic training we were both stationed at Fort Hood, Texas. We didn’t know each other but it is possible we rubbed shoulders in one of the nightclubs in Killeen or at the 24-hour gas station near the entrance of post where you could buy liquor and smokes at any hour of the day or night. We would have appeared as two pissed-off looking kids, sunburned in desert camo, waiting in line after work to buy some relief from boredom and toil. No one in a position to make such judgments would have pegged us as budding literary novelists.

It would have been in 2005 that our paths unknowingly crossed in Texas, if they did. I would have been just returned from Iraq, and Walker would have been on his way. Each of us was deployed as part of a combat arms unit at a time when the war was particularly deadly for U.S. troops. He spent a year as a medic with an infantry company in the Triangle of Death, and I made my bones as a tank gunner in Sadr City. We both saw and did our share of awful shit. From the descriptions I’ve read, Walker saw and did more. Neither of us did more than one tour over there. One was plenty. Neither of us had kids. We had options.

After we left Texas our lives maintained surface similarities even as they began diverging in radical ways. I went back to school on the G.I. Bill, studied English, and this time did well, grade-wise, though the transition to civilian life was not always smooth. Walker also went back to school on the G.I. Bill, studied English, and did even worse than he had before—much worse, in fact. He became addicted to heroin and robbed ten banks before crashing his car while eluding police. Around the same time that was happening, I was a graduate student publishing short stories in literary journals. I kept at the writing game and hustled my butt off for the decade it took me to land a book deal. Nico Walker has one, too, but not much else. He is a convict who resides in a federal prison in Kentucky.

When I first heard of him and his autobiographical novel, I confess my reaction to it was not-so-gentle bemusement. Oh great, I thought. An Iraq-veteran-junkie-bank-robber novelist. We have truly jumped the shark in this genre. Blame our sensationalistic media culture, which often functions to seek out and reward the very worst people. I feared the rest of us, in the wake of his book, would now have to deal with its confirmation of a damaging stereotype about this generation of veterans: that we are no more than mindless thugs who, by virtue of our participation in a criminal war, are criminals at heart, if not by the letter of the law.

On top of that, it seemed to me a dizzying moral abdication that so many literary journalists and book critics had taken it upon themselves to celebrate work by a convicted violent criminal from an affluent background, in a cultural moment when any number of male authors and editors have been lately accused of inappropriate behavior, which may not rise to the level of criminal offense, but which is nevertheless deemed toxic enough to warrant the ruination of their careers. Meanwhile, some of the same institutions and people most responsible for tearing down these “shitty men” in literature were now elevating Walker to literary celebrity, his career launched precisely because of his outrageously bad behavior.

The genesis of Cherry has its roots in a 2013 BuzzFeed profile on his robberies and military service. After reading this piece, a book editor reached out to Walker, writing him letters in prison and eventually soliciting a novel from the inmate. In the acknowledgements section at the end of Cherry, Walker claims he had to be convinced and encouraged by his editor to start writing the book in the first place. If we take him at his word, it would not exist otherwise. Needless to say, most first-time novelists cannot expect this kind of treatment. They struggle for years to get a foot in the gatekeepers’ door. Even the talented give up and fail. Walker joined the army and robbed a string of banks, and the gatekeepers came to him.

It felt unseemly, unfair, and hypocritical, and I know it’s difficult these days to find objective moral standards we would all agree on. But perhaps we might agree it’s fundamentally wrong to stick a pistol in a pregnant woman’s face and demand money from her to fund one’s drug habit. Walker did just that in real life, yet most of the discussion surrounding his book is not about his victims. I can’t help but wonder, if he had made a lewd comment to that woman or exposed himself to her while robbing her, would that have been enough to preclude glowing reviews? What are the standards here, anyway? Why condemn one variety of toxic masculinity while celebrating another? Is there something especially romantic for Americans about bank robbers and broken veterans—so long as they’re clean cut and white?

The answer of course is yes.

And all of that is to say how I came to Cherry. Skeptically, to say the least. Moved by annoyance as much as curiosity, I sat down to read, finding within its clipped cadences something even more offensive than I’d expected: a litany of selfishness, sexism, casual racism, cruelty, pointless graphic violence, squalor, perversion, self-abuse, nihilism—more or less all the bad things in contemporary American life. To my surprise, I enjoyed reading it very much. Not because I always revel in bad things, but Walker’s telling of them struck me as remarkably truthful. At one point in the book the unnamed narrator is in a college classroom, attempting to explicate Keats’ famous lines—“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”—and while his interpretation fails to convince a jaded English professor, it revealed to me the animating purpose behind this book. Simply, to tell the truth. No matter how brutal and awful it was, especially then, to tell the truth.

Cherry succeeds admirably well in this project, insofar as it makes a pleasing form out of one man’s particularly ugly truth. It’s a solipsistic book with a narrow perspective, but it intends to be, and the chapters set at war read like a more honest accounting of what an Iraq deployment circa 2005 felt like to a lower-enlisted grunt in a bad spot than almost anything else I have read on the subject. It’s miles closer to the truth of that experience than anything written by the generals and most of what’s been produced so far by journalists and historians. Some people will not want to admit that. They won’t like hearing that significant numbers of American soldiers were huffing Dust Off in Baghdad, were watching the vilest kinds of pornography on duty, were pilfering, were abusing detainees, were smuggling illegal drugs into theater, and generally speaking, cared as much about killing Iraqis as they did about helping them.

Uncomfortable or not, nasty or not, those are truths of how it was over there, no denying. If there’s a flaw in the Iraq chapters it’s that they are so unrelentingly bleak that civilians with little first-hand experience of the military may get the wrong idea. Not everything was darkness and depravity, even in a warzone. There was lightness and tenderness there, too. Compassion, self-sacrifice, nobility of spirit—fathers and mothers trying to do right by their families and country. None of that was enough to tip the scales, though. The darkness predominated by a long shot. In this way, Walker’s vision of war is correct.

The second thing about Cherry that subverted my expectations in a good way was how poorly it conforms to the simplistic narratives others are trying to impose on it. What I mean may best be shown by example. Here’s one where the editors of Esquire, while introducing an excerpt from the novel, frame it in these terms:

In Nico Walker’s Cherry a young veteran returns home from Iraq with PTSD and turns to drugs in order to cope with his demons. When his money runs out, he turns to robbing banks.

On a similar note but with more sophistication, in her author profile for the New York Times Alexandra Alter writes:

Cherry is a raw coming-of-age story in reverse—a young man drops out of college, enlists in the Army and goes to war, but rather than maturing in the crucible of combat, he comes home shattered, unable to function. He becomes addicted to opiates and starts robbing banks almost on a whim.

These descriptions of the book (which I am reproducing because they are representative, not extraordinary) imply a strong link between Walker’s PTSD, his addiction, and the robberies he committed. That link could be strong and real in his case, but maybe not, and it could be that there are relationships between these problems, though not so direct a line from one to the other as some might assume. According to the Department of Veteran’s Affairs, PTSD correlates with (but cannot be said to cause) an increased risk of violence among those who suffer from it. When studies on this question control for alcohol and drug abuse, however, PTSD no longer associates with violence at all.

Alcohol and drug abuse, it turns out, are much greater predictors of violent behavior than PTSD is. It should be said that the vast majority (around 90%) of post-9-11 veterans who suffer from the disorder are nonviolent, and that all veterans, including recent ones, are on average less likely to be incarcerated than civilians. The association of PTSD and criminal violence is problematic, to say the least, though you wouldn’t know any of that by reading any of the big reviews or promotional materials for Cherry, which fail to mention these complex interrelationships.

Thankfully, they are at the heart of Walker’s story. It’s a descent, a dissolution, yes, but one that begins from an already low place. The narrator’s drug use, thrill-seeking and criminality predate his PTSD. They predate even his enlistment in the army, perhaps by years; his problems begin long before the war. They begin for us on the first page of the first chapter as he tells us he was “going through a blotters phase,” in other words, doing large quantities of LSD. So much so, he shows up to class and to his job at a shoe store while tripping on acid. He drinks heavily. He does cocaine. Ecstasy. Pharmaceuticals. He sells drugs to his classmates. “But it wasn’t like I was bad or anything,” he tells us wryly. “I wasn’t bothering anybody; I didn’t even eat meat.”

Along with his relationship to a young woman, drug abuse is one of the major through-lines that connects the before-war, war, and after-war sections of the novel. Though he doesn’t get hooked on heroin until after he returns from Iraq, Walker’s narrator is most definitely an addict at every stage of his development in the book. It follows a progression of addiction that includes war, is complicated by war, but is not fundamentally a result of going to war. It would be more correct to say Nico Walker went to war because he was an addict, not the other way around. At any rate, the relationship between trauma, addiction, and self-destruction is not so cut and dry as some might think. He tells us so himself:

I had to take James Lightfoot to the police station in Linndale. James Lightfooot was a good guy but he was also fucked in the head. I don’t know the details of exactly why or how he was fucked in the head or if there were any such exact details. Probably he was just born fucked in the head. And I guess I’d been born that way too and it was only a coincidence that I had been to a war and the war probably hadn’t had much to do at all with my being fucked in the head.

We might add that the war sure didn’t help matters, and that his participation in the fighting could be more than a coincidence, that maybe being “fucked in the head” predisposes a certain kind of reckless young person to want to join up during wartime. And to heroin use. And in extreme cases, to bank robbery.

“Because I was born that way” might be the truth, but it won’t be a satisfying one for many readers who have been raised on characters that are supposed to ooze with “agency,” the ability to make a clear bold choice that changes their world. In this novel, Walker suggests we may not have as much of a choice as we think. External forces, substances and genetics shape the lives of these characters as much as choices do. This underlying logic to the novel places it in a tradition of literary naturalism, including work by writers like Zola and Frank Norris, both of whom also tended to chronicle the seamier side of life.

From contemporary book critics, Walker’s voice has drawn comparisons to Hemingway and Salinger, and while his terse prose recalls the former, and his youthful disaffection the latter, to my mind he has more in common with Bukowski or Burroughs. With its themes of meanness, degeneracy, intoxication, and its lacerating black humor, Cherry ranks up there with Junkie or Post Office. Fans of those books will almost certainly appreciate this one, but if readers are looking for a heist novel, they may be disappointed. This is much more a story about drugs and war than about robbing banks; those crimes form the crux of Cherry’s marketing materials, but only a small fraction of its pages. This feels right to me, though. Walker was not an effective thief, taking on average only a few thousand dollars at each of the banks he hit. The way these crimes are described in the novel feels, again, more truthful than we usually get in fiction about such things. His robberies come off as impulsive acts of desperation, little more than smash-and-grab jobs, doomed to fail. He was no master criminal, and his take was far from lucrative, given the risks.

Not lucrative, that is, unless we count Cherry as part of his haul. If he hasn’t already, he will soon make more money from royalties than he ever took from a teller’s drawer. It’s been reported that he has used some of his publishing advance to make restitution to the banks he robbed. I wonder which of his human victims might also want a cut. While lawyers from Knopf have expressed their opinion that the novel does not conflict with laws prohibiting convicts from profiting off depictions of their crimes, that opinion could be challenged in court, perhaps successfully. It might well be challenged if Walker sells enough copies. People seem to know where the money is.

Despite my initial skepticism and some lingering extra-textual reservations about how and why this book is being sold, I hope it is widely read. I hope its author keeps writing and that he keeps his nose clean when he is released from prison in a couple years. By all rights, his debut should have then become widely known. It’s got all the ingredients for a bestseller: a love story (albeit a twisted one), vivid yet accessible writing, enough suspense to keep you going, and that based-on-a-true-story quality of authenticity that is hard to duplicate. It’s an especially timely read on the opioid epidemic. Those who have had a loved one go down that terrible road may see his or her despair in this book. For those of us who fought in Iraq, you will recognize that place, too. It’s mostly a destroyed place, and we were the ones to destroy it—we finished the job, anyway. Cherry tells us something bitterly important about how, if not why that happened. It reveals, in one man’s process of self-destruction, a nation’s. In this case, I mean ours.

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War Camera
31 May 2017, 17:38
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Not long before I deployed to Baghdad, I bought a digital camera. I was in an unusual position, as a soldier headed overseas, but the impulse behind my purchase was the same as it would’ve been for anyone embarking on a significant journey. I wanted a camera to record it on.

In addition to the camera, I bought several books on Iraqi history. I already had a few more on Islam, since I had taken a couple classes in the subject before dropping out and enlisting in the months after the 9-11 attacks. I read about the majesty of the Abbasid caliphate, successors to the Prophet Mohammed, who founded Baghdad and presided over the beginning of a golden age for the Land of the Two Rivers. The dynasty was noted for the mathematical and scientific achievements of its scholars, for its poetry and literature and, generally, for its wealth and cultural grandeur, typified in the House of Wisdom, foremost library of the age, which was later sacked by Mongol raiders who flung texts into the Tigris until it was said the river turned the color of the ink.

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Sheikh being questioned, northeastern Baghdad

I was only the latest in a millennia-long march of foreign soldiers to come to this place. I arrived bearing slightly more historical knowledge than the average American G.I., but most of the exact same gear. We brought footlockers, duffels, weapons, and rucksacks—where most of us stowed our cameras. By the end of the year, nearly everyone in the platoon had one.

That detail was more important than it seemed. It was one symptom of a new era in warfare. If Vietnam was the first televised war, Iraq was the first one to be broadcast by those who were fighting it. A slew of documentaries have been made using first-person footage shot by soldiers, not to mention innumerable blogs, YouTube feeds, websites, and all other kinds of soldier-generated records left on both sides of the fighting lines.

Recently, I went back through the photos I took in Iraq. One thing that struck me was just how unexciting and inartful the bulk of them are—the photos are bad, even by touristic standards.

There is an excuse. We were highly limited by the war’s exigencies. We had a job to do, and it sucked. We could not go wherever we wanted. We usually weren’t supposed to eat the local food (I tried naan and chai). Every interaction with an Iraqi, however pleasant, was mediated by the fact that I was in uniform and occupying their country, some thought illegally. I saw very little of the country outside of Baghdad. I saw nothing of northern Iraq, which was relatively peaceful at that time and therefore had no use for me. I am told one can find lush plains and mountains there, and that it sometimes snows.

Neither did I get to lay eyes on the fabulous gold-domed mosque of Samarra (since destroyed and rebuilt), nor the ruins of Babylon, nor the Ziggurat of Ur, nor the magnificent arabesques inside the shrine to Imam Ali. Nor the Baghdad Zoo, the amusement park, any of the national museums—even within the capital, I was mostly confined to the area around Sadr City. It was badly impoverished, nothing a tourist would want to see. I could count on one hand the number of times we ventured from our dusty little camp across the city to the Green Zone, which had been carved out of the more traditionally beautiful and opulent quarter of Baghdad, where most of the grand palaces, government buildings, and historic sites stood.

Just about everything, grand or not, was pocked with at least a few bullet holes. It was a rough tour, and we did what we could to unwind. Plenty of lighthearted photos from that year show us fooling around in the barracks, doing things only teenagers would care to record. There is one series depicting a guy shaving another guy’s head, while the man being shaved gives the viewer the finger. There is another chronicling a prank involving a blow-up doll.

There were times we fought viciously, but I have no photos of combat. When I was shot at, or blown up, or shooting back, my camera was not the thing I reached for. My record is thus one of boredom, the down times, and there were plenty of those. War, as they say, is mostly monotony.

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Spools of concertina wire at the ruined U.N. compound, Baghdad

Artistic production can work as a kind of self-perpetuating compulsion. For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a strong urge to leave behind a record. With this said, I didn’t really think of myself as any kind of artist (and it is worth saying I definitely did not think of myself as a tourist—I was a soldier) when I was in Iraq. And it shows. Out of roughly 400 photographs I took there, only a couple dozen might ever be described as artful or beautiful.

These qualities came unexpectedly. It was the luck of capturing the subject at just the right moment. I was once ordered by our lieutenant to take a photo of a local sheikh to document his identity. The man’s likeness was snapped with little care, its purpose purely utilitarian, but it remains interesting to look at. There is something in him that is hard to pin down. He glances at the camera with a look of skepticism, the hint of disdain, a slight sneer rising in his lips, his pride and worry concealed, but at the same time, almost palpable. I could feel his disapproval of what I was doing, while capturing his image. I can still feel it. He was stunning.

To find heartbreaking beauty in the Iraqi people was not difficult. It might seem harder to find it in the country’s decay and eventual destruction—but it wasn’t, at least not from a purely aesthetic standpoint. A movement of art has grown around the idea of “ruins photography,” which concerns itself with abandoned places—modern structures that have fallen into disrepair. There was no lack of that in Baghdad.

Walls sheered off to reveal the interiors of honeycombed rooms; the bounded infinitude of spools of razor wire; a human shadow and broken glass behind metal bars; close ups of silver gouges in steel cut by an exploding RPG; a Gordian knot of jury-rigged power lines meeting in midair: Any beauty in these photos derives from their ugliness, in the way it can be composed and framed to reveal certain awful truths. The foolish waste of the war. The vanity of all human striving. Our ever-elapsing mortality, the ways in which we neglect our labors, and how everything can fall to pieces at any given moment, even if we are careful. We and our failures are the context outside the frame. We are what the photos point to but never show. The kind I am talking about rarely depicts people.

Ruins can be rendered beautiful to look at, if not to live in. But there is another type of ugliness that is just ugly, and a corresponding genre of war photograph, which I have seen more than I would like, and which I am glad I never took myself. Many Iraqis already knew what was happening at the Abu Ghraib prison west of Baghdad, but the entire world saw for itself after a cache of photos showing detainee abuse was broadcast by 60 Minutes in late April, 2004.

That scandal broke a few weeks after I arrived in country. It’s hard to overstate the impact of those images. It seemed like, almost overnight, the mood on the street changed for the worse. Some of the children still smiled, and always would, but a growing number jeered and threw rocks at our vehicles as we passed. Ugliness begot ugliness, with one terrible image contributing to the creation of another. We watched online as insurgents paraded to their deaths hostages dressed in prison-orange jumpsuits, the choice of costume a photographic call and response.

In spite of the increasing horror, most of us kept on posing, smoking and joking, looking hard in front of our million dollar killing machines. Showing fear was something you learned not to do in the army. For many of us, however, it was our worst fear, to wind up on a video like that. We may have been young and reckless, but we were savvy enough to realize we were living in a strange new age, one in which an image could persist forever, despite never having existed as a physical object. Dying in Iraq was bad enough, but dying every day for all time on the Internet was unfathomable. The stakes were high, like a fight against the worst kind of immortality. The victor was the one who persisted long enough to set the terms of remembrance. However feebly, we were all trying to do that. All of us carried cameras.

Brian Van Reet with tank

Posing with battle-damaged tank

In the years since my time in the war, a handful of people have asked if I would consider going back to Iraq (this time, as an actual tourist) if the fighting there were ever to end. Some have posed this question sarcastically—as if anyone in his right mind would want to vacation in Baghdad. Others were more in earnest, perhaps thinking of Vietnam veterans who’ve returned to Southeast Asia, decades after their combat tours, or the World War II vets making one last pilgrimage to the Normandy coastline.

Who knows what the future holds. Certainly, Iraq is home to a vast amount of history and culture that I am still interested in, and there are magnificent places there that I wish I had seen. But I’m afraid I never could feel like just another tourist, even if Baghdad’s streets were suddenly made as safe as my hometown’s.

True tourists experience new destinations in a peculiar present tense, a kind of limbo that obscures their past and future lives. A temporary escape from one’s existence is part of the allure of traveling. Back in Iraq, on the other hand, I would always have one or both feet in my past life. Which, in a way, would suit me to the place. During my time there, I got the feeling its people looked to and were highly aware of the past, and the impressive heritage it has given them, an awareness that was only heightened and made more painful by the state of the country after more than thirty years of warfare and sanctions.

Now it has been nearly forty years of war and misery for Iraq. I am not an optimist by nature and can’t see wanting to go back there in my lifetime. But I have been proven wrong before. There could be more room for hope than memories allow. Baghdad has been destroyed in the past, but it has also been rebuilt in the past, before being destroyed again. It was once the most majestic city in the entire world, and it may yet become majestic again. The future is unknown. History does repeat itself. This is the rare case where I wish it would.

A version of this essay first appeared in ShortList, Issue 470

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New Report Cites Half-a-Million War Related Dead in Iraq
23 October 2013, 19:48
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An article for The Daily Beast about a new study of Iraqi war dead:

http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/10/23/new-report-cites-half-a-million-war-related-dead-in-iraq.html

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A War, Before and After
20 March 2013, 20:54
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Short essay in The New York Times on the 10th anniversary of the Iraq War:

http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/03/18/a-war-before-and-after-part-3/

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Excerpted and read by Neal Conan on NPR’s Talk of the Nation (“Remembering Iraq”):

http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=174849027&m=174849019 

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