Biting into a tangy ‘Cherry’

The novel I’m reading now, “Cherry,” is gritty, witty, dirty, funny, grim — and marvelous. Compulsively readable, the rollicking fiction introduces in debut author Nico Walker a natural dynamo equipped with a dazzlingly fresh voice that has a compelling, troubling croak in it. It’s scratchy, a little hoarse, and it sings with a hard rock crunch. 

Almost universally acclaimed, “Cherry,” out this summer, is tough, streetwise and gruesomely war-torn. It is ugly, scabby — drugs, crime, graphic combat violence — yet lovely still, bristling with heart, candor and raw youthful love that throbs unvarnished truth. What emerges is a pungent, probing snapshot of America today, what has been dubbed “(perhaps) the first great novel of the opioid epidemic.”

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I’m just over half-way into it, so my take on the book isn’t fully formed, but early impressions beguile. Walker traffics in autofiction — like his narrator/antihero, he was a 20-year-old medic in Iraq, pulled bank robberies and battled a heroin habit — so he knows of what he writes. (Walker, 32, boasts a remarkable backstory: He wrote “Cherry” from prison, where he remains.) 

“‘Jesus’ Son’ meets ‘Reservoir Dogs’ in a breakneck-paced debut novel about love, war, bank robberies, and heroin,” notes the publisher.

So far the narrative sizzles with combat action and battalion buffoonery among low-level fuckups, not the slick, seasoned pros of, say, “The Hurt Locker.” The war reportage is colloquial and harrowing; the prose lean and sinewy and almost drolly unsentimental. 

“Cheetah was driving. Cheetah was a shitbag. He was big into Faces of Death and what was almost certainly child pornography. He would buy all the stupid gaudy knives the haji shops sold and mount them on the plywood wall above his bunk. He was driving that morning, and I thought it was stupid since he wasn’t even a grunt. He was the lowest ranking of three supply POGs in the company, and he wasn’t even good at that because he kept getting himself Article-Fifteened for being a moody knife-pulling shitbag.”

Walker’s “language — relentlessly profane but never angry — simmers at the level of morose disappointment, something like Holden Caulfield Goes to War,” says The Washington Post, accurately.

The protagonist’s romance with a girl back home leavens the drama at this point in the novel. Yet meanwhile there is this: unflinching combat that seems as vital to the story’s realism as any of it, and with which I will leave you. Hang tight:

“I said, ‘Where are the casualties?’ He said, ‘They’re all dead, you fucking asshole.’ I looked again at the body of the gunner. He was burned away, scrap of IBAS clung to his torso, legs folded up, femurs and tibias and fibulas with black tissue, arms melted, body eviscerated and lying on its guts, face gone, head a skull. The smell is something you already know. It’s cooled in your blood. The smoke gets into every pore and into every gland, your mouth full of it to where you may as well be eating it.”

No matter how horrible that passage is, it feels strangely and totally essential. “Cherry” is like that: so uncompromisingly true, it rattles you awake.

Ode to a wondrous hair explosion

It was like a solar event radiating from her head, explosive yellow curlicues twirling and boinging into the stratosphere. Flaring, flaming, the bleached helixes formed a magnificent afro that any ethnicity could pull of with high-fashion finesse. It was positively Kaepernickian.

This vision appeared today in a cafe and I oddly did not see the woman’s face, just the back and side of her head. It was plainly a woman, but I have no idea if she was white, black, brown or what. I stared at the flaxen shrubbery from behind. Its corona of frizz entangles you, startles, transfixes. 

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A lot like this.

It’s so loud, so brash, it’s like a bulletin, a manifesto, a mission statement. Hair, like clothes, is like that: It’s an articulate communicator, revealing much about a person, like the choice of your car or your dog does. It says This is me, and quite a bit more. 

What this gigantic yellow afro says is: YES DAMMIT!

If you want a piece of that, you can buy the big ‘do for $19 from Amazon:

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But that tilts toward offensive, never mind the repugnant artificiality of it. 

I like what I saw, the real deal, the brazen authenticity and screw-you audacity. I like the sheer follicular electricity, all zap and fire.

All packed with nowhere to go (yet)

I’m ready to skedaddle.

I am going to Turkey and my prep-work is a whooshing blur. Look out — I am a trip organizer extraordinaire, a whiz-bang packer, planner and non-procrastinator. I am completely prepared to go to my next destination, namely Istanbul, with a two-day sidelight to the south in Cappadocia. It’s time. I’m ready. Let’s go. 

I’ve booked my round-trip flight between home and Istanbul, and the same for Istanbul and Cappadocia. Reservations are made for three hotels, seven dinners and a chi-chi culinary tour that ambles across both sides of the city, the European and Asian. 

I know where I’m renting a motor scooter in Cappadocia, and I know the price. I’ve purchased and printed my Turkish tourist visa. My passport and credit cards have been photocopied. I’ve selected the book I will take for in-flight reading. And I have procured provisions: No Jet Lag tablets (self-explanatory), Emergen-C immune boosters and a few airplane-size bottles of booze for the red-eye flight to Turkey.

In my head, my wardrobe is totally picked out and as good as packed. I am, I think, more than ready to walk out the door.

I leave in two months.

My readiness is ridiculous. I’ve accomplished all of the above in little less than two weeks since I bought my airline ticket. I book my flight. And I pounce. 

Yet I am not rash and hasty, though I have been on occasion in the past. (I still rue that musty, doll-house-size hotel room in the Latin Quarter. Refund!). I stay up late, often into the wee hours, researching and cross-referencing restaurants and hotels, poring over various reviews.

IMG_1163Budget is always a factor. Quality is too. Email exchanges with tours, eateries and hotels are voluminous. Like a bulldog reporter, I ask pointed questions, suss out better deals, dig for the best room and best price. Don’t hustle this hustler.

I have done this many times. I’ve had practice. Hire me for your next vacation. In a hair-whipping whirlwind I’ll have you booked and vacuum-packed in less time than it takes you to notify your credit cards that you’re leaving the country. (Yes, I’ve already done that, too.)

I’m sure this all appears quite anal and neurotic. And, dammit, it is. But it’s also the breathtaking, otherworldly efficiency of a luxuriantly bearded wizard or a dancing magical elf. I rule.

My brother and his family are going to Spain for Christmas. I see them straining, huffing, puffing, doing the rich, rewarding work of travel planning. Some of that includes reading books about their destinations that aren’t city guides. (OK, I still have a book about Turkey I need to read before I go: “Crescent & Star: Turkey Between Two Worlds.”)

I’ve assisted my brother a little using my almost eerie aptitude for travel research, helping him locate hot restaurants and the like. But four months out, they’re on the ball, doing great work.

My work, as thoroughly noted, is all but done for Turkey. I have two months.

Two months.

Now what do I do?

Drinking outside the box

Summer’s steamy curtain call is almost here (woo-hoo!), but we’re still in a light wine state of mind. Rosé is our go-to beverage in the seasonal swelter — with citrus-laden gin and tonics right behind — almost like sody-pop for the kids: refreshing, quenching, yet still retaining that sneaky bite adults crave (and sometimes require).  

These days we’re getting our rosé from a faintly unorthodox source: We’re drinking from a box. They call it bag in box wine, or simply boxed wine. Either way, you extract a plastic nozzle or spigot from a cardboard box and wine spritzes from it, or more specifically, from a shiny bag inside the box.

It’s resplendently dorky.

And yet …

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After a period of snooty ignominy, boxed wine is back in vogue, shorn of shame and stigma amongst those who know a good deal and, yes, a good wine. Excellent boxed wines abound, including the crack rosé we’re drinking in almost blushing abundance: Lab Rosé, from Casa Santos Lima winery outside of Lisbon, Portugal. (Rosé, incidentally, is defined as “a light pink wine, colored by only brief contact with red grape skins.” It’s exceptionally fruity, just a tad dry, ideal for the hot months.) 

Three reasons boxed wine rules:

— It’s way cheaper. A standard 3-liter box holds as much wine as four regular wine bottles. Our local outlet sells a Lab Rosé box for $17. Do the math and get misty-eyed. Then guzzle. What you lose in sleek glass aesthetics you make up for in sheer value.

— It’s environmentally sound. Say several sources: The production of boxed wine generates about half the emissions per standard bottle of wine.

 It lasts forever (almost). “Thanks to its handy-dandy vacuum-sealed spigot, boxed wine has a longer shelf life after opening than its bottled counterparts,” writes one pro. “And I mean a lot longer. Up to six whole weeks, in fact.”

IMG_1161And that brings me back to Lab Rosé, which is that much more of a bargain because of its prodigious quality. It is, for example, far more luscious and drinkable than its more expensive Provence Rosé counterpart, whose gloppy malty finish is ruinous. And though Bota Box Dry Rosé is quite fine, it too is several dollars more than trusty Lab.

Lab indeed earns consistently strong reviews from wine experts and sundeck sippers alike. Wine Enthusiast bestows Lab Rosé a respectable 86 points, noting, “This is a pale colored, attractively perfumed wine. With red berry fruit flavors, bright acidity and a lively orange zest texture, it is fruity and ready to drink.”

Ready to drink, for sure. Right out of the dorky, yet somehow radically cool, box.

My best fiend: remembering a childhood pal

My best friend between ages 5 and 10 was a freckled scamp named Gene, who even at that age seemed to conduct life on the razor’s edge, courting trouble with a highly evolved sense of mischief and the occasional snap of malice.

Always cooking something up for us to perpetrate, be it leaving dog poop on someone’s porch then doorbell ditching or setting small fires with gun powder in his bedroom, Gene earned the nickname “Gene the Machine” from my dad, who didn’t know the half of it.

Small and short — he sat on a tall step stool at the dinner table — Gene provided my unsentimental education. He taught me every cuss word I know. When he blurted “Go to hell!” at a girl in our fourth-grade class, I was too overcome with snickers to be shocked. He introduced me to nudie magazines, some of which he buried in plastic bags in his backyard. He sold me on the rock band Kiss and the dubious pleasures of pyromania. 

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Matches and firecrackers were always on hand. We scorched many things, including, by accident, ourselves. At our mildest we would torment plastic army men, igniting them and watching them melt, black, acrid smoke curling up. Eventually Gene, with another pal, burned down a large field. (That misbegotten episode attracted the authorities.)

Something of a holy terror when he was in form — like the time he tortured to death two frogs he found under a rock — Gene also exposed me to twin thrills: the breathtaking delights of high-impact rollercoasters and the gnarly waves at our Southern California beaches. To this day, a mean, uncompromising rollercoaster is a peerless high.  

And then he’d do something reckless, like toss shotgun shells into a bonfire or pour rubbing alcohol on the garage floor in a circle, light it and stand in the middle of it as if performing some kind of pipsqueak pagan ritual.

We were young and he made me laugh harder than anyone. Yet this incorrigible gremlin exposed me to dangers and things wrong and taboo, even illegal. (Where were our parents amid the devilry?) Once he convinced me to throw rocks off a cliff into dense traffic. A man, enraged, saw us and we ran like hell.

Even Gene’s jokes were warped, naturally. He told me that he was going to stick a firecracker in the neighbor poodle’s butt and light it. Seeing my horror, he admitted he was kidding. Thing was, I didn’t put it past him. (Then again, he was a bleeding heart animal lover, lavishing cooing affection on his dog and pet rat.)

After I moved, at 10, from Santa Barbara to the San Francisco Bay Area, Gene and I kept in touch, seeing each other twice a year to hit the next rollercoaster, smoke cigarettes on the railroad tracks and listen to heavy metal as our teenage years blossomed.

Gene picked up the guitar and played metal like a madman — he was good at whatever he tried, from surfing to skiing — and I continued playing the drums I started as a kid. We jammed, copying riffs we heard on vinyl by the likes of Ozzy Osbourne, Metal Church and Metallica.

And then Gene’s heedless path took him down bum detours, drug addiction being the worst of it. We saw less and less of each other as we hit our 20s — college, jobs. He struggled mightily with his demons, and lost. At 26 he was dead from an overdose. I was a pallbearer at his funeral with a few other guys I’d never met before.

I still have dreams of Gene — impish, funny, alive. He made an enormous imprint on me, shaping and influencing me in ways to live (loud, with a scrap of healthy risk) and not to live (like a kamikaze). Age has tempered, filtered and refined all that. I’m (arguably) well-adjusted, considering the Gene factor.

In the end, Gene was just a neat kid, scrappy and irrepressible, taking a bite out of life with enviable gusto if too little restraint and a sometimes shaky moral code. I facetiously call him that devil child. But, thing is, I don’t think he’s anywhere near hell.

Captivated in Cappadocia (Turkey Part II)

The stony hills don’t roll so much as jag and tumble. Fantastic rock formations — so often called “fairy chimneys” that the term, apt as it is, has become cliché — spiral from the clay-colored earth in tapered towers and stout tepees. 

Cave dwellings and ancient cave chapels adorned with shimmeringly preserved Christian frescoes honeycomb hillsides. Phallic boulders and chalky spires erupt out of the arid Anatolian plains. Horses graze amid tall grass and bright wildflowers and horse-pulled carts trundle down steep stone streets.

After a long time away, I am soon returning to this otherworldly, almost Martian landscape of Cappadocia, Turkey, where I will rent a motor scooter and buzz the hills, stop and gape at the underground cities and famed Open-Air Museum, stay in the obligatory cave hotel, tuck into lavish Turkish cuisine and partake of the modest nightlife. (I’m partial to the funky Flintstone Bar, which is also, yes, a cave.)

I was last in Cappadocia a decade ago and I marveled then and expect to marvel all over again at the sculpture-like topography — it’s a mushroom! It’s an arrowhead! — molded by the artistic hands of the heavens. This UNESCO World Heritage site, whose pink dawn skies are peppered with flotillas of touristy hot-air balloons, would make an exemplary location for a sci-fi or fantasy movie, and probably has. 

It’s practically a hop-skip from Istanbul to Central Anatolia — a 90-minute flight, that, at $25 each way, is a steal that can’t be denied. So back I go this fall.

These are scenes from my last stay in Cappadocia — looking back while looking forward.

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My cave hotel in Goreme, Cappadocia

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Cave hotel room

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And three bonus photos that really capture the magic, borrowed from the web:

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The pictures, and pull, of Istanbul (Turkey Part I)

Like regular human ardor, a love affair with a city is complicated — prickly, passionate, vexing, ineffable. We adore our favorite cities, which are not breathing creatures but quasi-animate entities that are unquestionably alive, pulsing and forever mutable.

When pressed, the two cities I enjoy the most intense romances with are Paris and Istanbul. Paris is my baby, but sometimes I think I love them equally. (Sorry, ma chérie.)

I fell in love with Istanbul in the spring and fall of 2008, two trips comprising some of my very peak travel experiences. There were times when I actually lost myself, and, this is spectacularly unusual, crawled out of my muzzy head, breathed a little and existed, if momentarily, in a vacuum of Edenic placidity, even contentment. I flew.

Ten years on, the country has hurtled into political tumult: multiple terrorist attacks, violent anti-government protests, an attempted coup and the burn marks of President Erdogan’s tightening authoritarian chokehold. The guidelines of a culinary walking tour in Istanbul actually state: “We are not responsible for acts beyond our control, including but not limited to …  acts of war, or other unrest caused by state or non-state actors.” Terrific.

I could boycott Turkey, but that’d be my loss. I miss the generosity of the people, the grandeur of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque, the majesty of the sun-twinkling Bosporus, the exquisite food, the dazzling cultural and religious breadth of East meets West. So I am returning this fall, with a two-day excursion amid the fairytale moonscapes of Cappadocia in Central Anatolia. (See them here. Ignore the festering hot-air balloons.)

These shots of Istanbul, snapped on my long-ago journeys, remind why I’m going back.

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