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.

Best summer reading (so far)

The damn summer is nearing its damn end and I still have at least two books I want to finish before autumn (dear, dear autumn) introduces its cool, dry resplendence. I will tackle Jamie Quatro’s debut novel “Fire Sermon” and Nick Drnaso’s ballyhooed “Sabrina,” the first graphic novel to make the Man Booker Prize longlist.

It’s been a fine summer reading-wise, with lots of pleasantly prickly fiction. I’m noting the best books I’ve read during the moist months so far. (Some of these blurbs, where noted, are recycled from prior blogs, but you won’t remember anyway.)

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Rachel Cusk’s extraordinary Outline trilogy, starting with “Outline” in 2015 and concluding with “Kudos” this year, presents a minimalism that feels maximalist, a headlong plunge into the rather circumscribed but deeply philosophical world of a single female protagonist who’s on a first-person journey amidst many places and people, and it’s cerebrally and queerly enthralling. Restless and ruminative, each book is short, about 250 pages, and you can start with any of them. (I think “Kudos” is my favorite.)

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A beautiful, privileged young woman is determined to hibernate from life via shelves of pills and pharmaceuticals, and we don’t quite know why. It is the cusp of 9/11 and the only people in her life are a mean sometime-boyfriend, a sort-of best friend and the indifferent fellows at the corner bodega. She’s a wreck, in cryptic self-exile. This wiggy, sometimes wayward study in alienation is at once comical, unnerving, depressing and iridescent. Yet, as good as it is, it’s not as fine as Moshfegh’s …

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She types with talons, and it’s beautifully thorny, particularly in these indelible tales. As noted in a previous post: “Moshfegh’s stories are spare and wicked, laced with a perfect pinch of transgression, enough to fill an eye-dropper. They are comic and you laugh, but there’s dried blood in them.” I’d read them again in a (skipped) heartbeat.

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I again quote a previous blog post: “This smashing debut by Tommy Orange is a novel of ambient beauty as well as a penetrating portal into urban Native American culture. It’s a world at once broken, squalid and, by the skin of its teeth, empowered. The writing swings, crackling with observational fire.” Look out for this one to sweep some prizes.

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A funny, wry and almost gnomic novel about love, marriage (and its dissolution) and raising an inquisitive daughter in Brooklyn. So singular, it’s hard to describe, this brief, breezy book is rife with wisdom, borrowed (the Stoics to Kafka) and original. It’s a pure delight, a glittery gem, in which epiphanies and head-nodding observations abound. It seems to introduce a new fiction form, and it’s a sort of masterpiece.

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Again, from a prior blog post: “Amie Barrodale’s ‘You Are Having a Good Time’ is a gratifying off-kilter kick, a spasm of spare, elusive, funny tales that are touched by mystery, an alluring unknowability. With cavalier irreverence, she throws a strobe-light on aberrant facets of the human condition.” A rare find, a dissonant joy.

The acrid bite of literary realism, in brief

Realism rules. Consider the first 10 words in Richard Yates’ novel “The Easter Parade”:

“Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life”

Sting, sizzle. 

This opener is massively effective. Knifelike, it plunges into the story, ducking preliminaries or decorous setups cluttered with background frills and bunting. Before we’ve even met the protagonists we are told in the chilliest terms how things will unspool for them tonally, if not dramatically. It’s a great entrance, pungent, punchy.

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I broach this because I’m half-way through “The Easter Parade” and its satisfactions are abundant, much like those in Yates’ corrosive classic of marital dissolution “Revolutionary Road.” That masterpiece of American realism is fiction with fangs, casting an unsparing eye on mainstream domestic rituals.

And it’s part of a 20th-century literary tradition, stories and novels, mostly by male writers, that scrutinize the age of anxiety, explicit sex, cynicism, malaise, regret, envy, jobs, kids, homes, husbands, wives, lovers, losers, drunks, the city and the mirage of the white suburban dream.

Highlights in this unofficial canon of realism include: Yates’ “Revolutionary Road”; Philip Roth’s “American Pastoral”; John Cheever, Ann Beattie, Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff’s unflinching stories; James Salter’s “Light Years”; John Updike’s “Rabbit” tetralogy; Richard Ford’s “Bascombe” trilogy; and so many more.

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Disillusionment, loss, heartbreak and disappointment are fragrant themes of these authors. But strangely the stories don’t feel forlorn. They almost feel consoling, perversely empathic — even when the human condition is laid bare and loneliness, our worst fear, takes hold.

”If my work has a theme,” Yates said, “I suspect it is a simple one: that most human beings are inescapably alone, and therein lies their tragedy.”

These realists serve up banality without bathos, unnerving wisdom in unfussy, largely conventional language. They are bleak and blunt, sometimes cruel in their honesty.

A (bitter) tasting:

“The hell with this aching, suffering, callow, half-assed delusion that he was in ‘love’ with her. The hell with ‘love’ anyway, and with every other phony, time-wasting, half-assed emotion in the world.”  — Richard Yates, “Revolutionary Road”

“He had learned the worst lesson that life can teach — that it makes no sense. And when that happens the happiness is never spontaneous again. It is artificial and, even then, bought at the price of an obstinate estrangement from oneself and one’s history.” — Philip Roth, “American Pastoral”

“She perceived vaguely the pitiful corruption of the adult world; how cruel and frail it was, like a worn piece of burlap, patched with stupidities and mistakes, useless and ugly, and yet they never saw its worthlessness.” — John Cheever, “Stories of John Cheever”

“There is no complete life. There are only fragments. We are born to have nothing, to have it pour through our hands.” — James Salter, “Light Years”

“Any time spent with your child is partly a damn sad time, the sadness of life a-going, bright, vivid, each time a last. A loss. A glimpse into what could’ve been.” — Richard Ford, “Independence Day”

51aBkOQUbQLThese are acid words. They are tough and unsentimental. I gravitate to them, and I can’t recommend them enough. They are beautiful. In them I locate unembellished truth. I’ve lived a little (Christ, I’m starting to sound like a grizzled cowboy) and none of these sentiments rings false or fabricated. They sound snipped from life in all its tarnished glories and burnished failures, and it is intoxicating.

A quote on confidence

I‘m reading “There There,” the smashing debut by Tommy Orange, and it’s a novel of ambient beauty as well as a penetrating portal into urban Native American culture. It’s a world at once broken, squalid and, by the skin of its teeth, empowered. The writing swings, crackling with observational fire. This aside about a young woman’s curdled confidence oddly hit home, like a lightning jag. It throbs with truth and woe.

“Something she always notices is how much confidence and lack of self-doubt people have. Take Harvey here. Telling this terrible story like it’s captivating. There are so many people she comes across who seem born with confidence and self-esteem. She can’t remember a day going by when at some point she hadn’t wished she could burn her life down.”

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More highly finicky reading

I’m the worst. I’m impatient. I’m mean. I’m discerning. I have taste. When it comes to books, I am ruthless. I’m even worse with movies. Most don’t stand a chance.

I have put down four books, closed them for good well before the 100-page mark, in the past two and a half weeks. Suffused with sorta-guilt — ah, not really — I swan to the next book, hoping for gems and genius. I am an optimist garbed as a very dark pessimist.

Mining this small stack I located gold — the books are by literary heavyweights, after all, and they do often gleam — but I also found fool’s gold, which I will not abide.

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The yeasty comic novel “Less” was the chintziest of the four. It won the Pulitzer Prize this year for fiction. What are you gonna do? I read, I shrugged, I shut. 

With wan humor tangled in wry, hackneyed observations about gays and straights and executed in lite-beer fizzy prose — “a quick, easy summer read,” said one critic, as if that’s a compliment — “Less,” by Andrew Sean Greer, reminded me of a gay-themed comedy series on HBO, one of those middling shows no one watches. The novel, says Greer, is “a love story, a satire of the American abroad, a rumination on time and the human heart.” Thanks, Mr. Greer, for defining “generic.”

I read some 75 pages of “Less” and I must agree with this writer who actually finished the book: It’s “chock-full of gay clichés that feel outdated, and the tone is generally one of superficial, unearned cynicism that sometimes drifts into cattiness.”

Yup. Even The New York Times, in an upbeat review, called it “too sappy by half.”

Zadie Smith writes with a magic wand; her language and storytelling gifts are things celestial (and she makes me gush floridly). I’m an ardent fan of her fiction — “White Teeth” glitters — but her 2012 novel “NW,” a typically vibrant latticework of people and place, didn’t grab me by the lapels, no matter that I don’t have lapels. As exceptional as the writing is, the story has a matte finish when I yearned for glossy. 

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Wade into Rivka Galchen’s hailed stories “American Innovations” and it’s clear why she is one of America’s hottest young fiction writers. She’s crisp, funny and fanciful, with a biting originality and a smidge of the surreal. But as much as I appreciated the collection, I put it down. I almost fell for it, then fashioned a one-word review: meh.

While there’s no shame in not finishing a book — I can’t believe people who feel they have to get to the last page even if it’s a slog — I can’t help but gulp and blush at this failure: Edith Wharton’s 1920 Pulitzer-winning classic “The Age of Innocence.”

I did not get far in the rather slim novel. I found the prose cluttered and perfumey, chokingly Austenian (though without the giggling), and fustily 19th-century for my contemporary palate. (Oddly, I loved Wharton’s 1911 “Ethan Frome.”) Wharton weaves long, highly populated sentences of lace and crushed velvet, many of them woozy and lovely.

Problem: I kept picturing doilies. 

Antidotes to these literary losers are a trio of new fiction by some of the most acclaimed women authors around: “Kudos” by Rachel Cusk, “How Should a Person Be” by Sheila Heti and “Homesick for Another World” by Ottessa Moshfegh. 

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I’m knee-deep in that last title, a 2017 collection of stories by the precocious Moshfegh, whose novel “Eileen,” a darkly off-kilter character study, impressed and troubled me — just how I like it.    

Moshfegh’s stories are spare and wicked, laced with a perfect pinch of transgression, enough to fill an eye-dropper. They are comic and you laugh, but there’s dried blood in them. 

Some excerpts:

“He thought that the drugs we bought in the bus-depot restroom were intended to expand his mind, as though some door could be unlocked up there and he would greet his own genius — some glowing alien in glasses and sneakers, spinning planet Earth on its finger. Clark was an idiot.” 

“Our repartee would be rich with subtlety and sarcasm, as smart and funny as mid-career Woody Allen. Our fucking, like Werner Herzog, serious and perplexing.” 

“I hated my boyfriend but I liked the neighborhood.”

To me, that is dreamy writing, all at once blithely sardonic, intelligently aloof and drolly perceptive, attached to the stinger of a scorpion.

Writers die. The art doesn’t.

The great authors Tom Wolfe and Philip Roth died eight days apart this month. I heard nothing about the startling proximity of the loss of two of America’s towering writers. And nothing about the theoretical third death of someone else famous when two celebrities die back-to-back. Nothing about that ghoulish trifecta.

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Philip Roth, died May 22.

If that make-believe third fatality does indeed occur soon, and he or she happens to be another English-language writer, which giant will fall? Toni Morrison? Stephen King? Alice Walker? John Irving? Ian McEwan? Cormac McCarthy? None of these literary lions are spring chickens, excuse the mixed animal metaphors.

Such morbid business is the stuff of cocktail party parlor games, slightly sick, if innocuous: King? No way. McCarthy is next, just watch. He’s 84! Or some such scintillating blather.

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Tom Wolfe, died May 14.

When a popular artist dies it makes a loud rip and a mighty hole in the cultural fabric. A sometimes-fan of Wolfe — I couldn’t get through much of his work, but “The Right Stuff” and “Bonfire of the Vanities” thrilled with reportorial breadth and linguistic virtuosity — I am a confirmed Roth acolyte. His death briefly shook me and cast me in a blue mood. Celebrity passings rarely have this effect on me. I took it personally.

Yet the sting faded, and I was gladdened to see book shops and libraries erecting proud shrines to the author of “American Pastoral,” “Sabbath’s Theater” and “The Human Stain,” small mountains of hardbacks and paperbacks as monuments to genius.

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I’ll get back around to the books, but for now I’m revisiting the PBS documentary “Philip Roth Unmasked,” an incisive portrait for the budding Rothian, a reminder of what made the novelist a colossus and worthy of the Nobel Prize that so shamefully eluded him.

I should say I was also hit harder than usual by the deaths last year of novelist Denis Johnson and playwright-author-actor Sam Shepard. Johnson was a marvel, his seminal short stories “Jesus’ Son,” the hypnotically chiseled “Train Dreams” and the haunting Vietnam epic “Tree of Smoke” funny, hallucinogenic and wildly transporting.

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Shepard, who I met and interviewed (see here), was always a personal favorite. An artist disguised as a road-weary bohemian cowboy, his acting was consistently spot-on (he was ace in the 1983 movie adaptation of Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff”) and I’m deeply partial to his 1980 play of fraternal fury “True West,” a raging comic masterstroke about bad blood, beer suds and the prickly craft of screenwriting. 

Watch it on YouTube, starring John Malkovich and Gary Sinise as riotously bickering brothers. It will, like Philip Roth at his best, knock you out. When you come to, the whole world will be a little bit different.

The next 5 books I’ll be cracking open

Far before I’m done reading a book, I know firmly what volume I’ll be cracking next. I keep an ever-replenished list of titles. Something is always ready, waiting, like the upcoming course at dim sum. 

As I wrap up “Inseperable,” the excellent new biography of Chang and Eng, the original Siamese twins, I know what’s next. I’m taking a worn paperback of Kurt Vonnegut’s archly prophetic classic “Mother Night” (1962) on my trip to Amsterdam next week. Vonnegut’s breezy cynicism, swirled with empathy, a hesitant optimism and measured absurdism, feels just right for airplane reading.

After that, 10 books weigh down my list. But half of them get to jump the line. These are the next five books I’m plunging into:

516B2M5L8XL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_I’ve read three of Zadie Smith’s fine novels — “Swing Time,” “On Beauty” and, the best of the bunch, “White Teeth” — so I’m revved for “NW, her acclaimed 2012 tragicomedy about a slice of London and how its human patchwork intersects and interacts. The intellectually rangy Smith has a sorcerer’s touch, conjuring crowded, complex stories that can be mesmerizing jumbles: granular, moving, funny and expansively human.

If Rachel Kushner’s wildly hailed fiction “The Flamethrowers” didn’t blow me away, it was still a fresh, propulsively entertaining epic about a young woman whose love of motorcycles, art and action hurl her on a picaresque through boho New York and radicalized Italy. In her new novel, the hotly awaited “The Mars Room, Kushner pinballs from the pitiless realities of a women’s prison to those in a San Francisco strip joint and beyond for a seedy and violent, harrowing but humorous skip through sordid demimondes. Raves wreathe the book already. “Heartbreaking and unforgettable … it deserves to be read with the same level of pathos, love and humanity with which it clearly was written,” gushes one reviewer.

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Our Shakespearean laureate, that lord of the Bard, Harold Bloom lasers in on one of the canon’s preeminent tragic figures in “Lear: The Great Image of Authority, a thin but typically volcanic volume that’s part of a series of portraits, including Iago, Falstaff and Cleopatra, titans all. Lear, fallen monarch, disgraced father, receives the full Bloomian treatment, a richly personal, prickly and cerebral exploration of the character and his enduring mythic stature.

Andrew Sean Greer’s “Less, winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, totally evaded my radar. I’m not even sure I’d heard of the novel until it cinched the award this month. I know so little about the bounding satire that I quote here from the dust jacket:

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“Arthur Less will almost fall in love in Paris, almost fall to his death in Berlin, barely escape to a Moroccan ski chalet from a Saharan sandstorm, accidentally book himself as the (only) writer-in-residence at a Christian Retreat Center in Southern India, and encounter, on a desert island in the Arabian Sea, the last person on Earth he wants to face. Somewhere in there: he will turn fifty. Through it all, there is his first love. And there is his last.”

OK, I’m hooked.

A writer friend of mine won’t read Ottessa Moshfegh’s fiction, citing a gruesome quotient of blood and bodily fluids. I don’t know what she’s talking about because I’ve never read Moshfegh. Her stories “Homesick for Another World” have been called “eerily unsettling … almost dangerous, while also being delightful, even laugh-out-loud funny.” Characters are “unsteady” and the “grotesque and the outrageous,” a la Flannery O’Connor, “are infused with tenderness and compassion.”

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She has “a big mind, a big heart, blazing chops, and a political acuity that is needle-sharp,” crows the publisher. “The needle hits the vein before we even feel the prick.”

I think my friend is crazy. This sounds amazing.

And on things bookish, I finally discovered a well-tread site fully worth your while: Literary Hub. Brain-cracking interviews, essays, reviews, profiles — I won’t go on about it; just check it out.