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.

Eight books I’ll never read

Call me a masochist, a philistine, willfully depriving myself of some of world literature’s masterworks. 

I beg to differ. I’ve read wads of wonderful books and have countless more to go, including those which I call my hope-to books, meaning I hope to get around to them in this lifetime: “Don Quixote,” “Middlemarch,” “War and Peace,” “The Portrait of a Lady,” and to finally finish “The Brothers Karamazov” and Don DeLillo’s “Underworld.”

The following eight novels are books I’ve either attempted to read and put down with disappointment or volumes I simply know I won’t find the time for because I’m pretty sure I’ll banish them, deflated, demanding my many reading hours back. In no order:

“Remembrance of Things Past” (1913-1927). And so our hero launches a legendary journey through his past with one bite of a tea-soaked madeleine, a journey that seems, for thousands of pages, unstoppable. Marcel Proust’s seven-volume novel puts the “ick” in epic, warding off the casual reader who’d rather not commit eons to a single novel. I wish I could do it. I started volume one, “Swann’s Way,” but its famed vortex didn’t suck me in. I took a bite of a milk-soaked Oreo, but it didn’t have the same effect.

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“Ulysses” (1922). The most obvious book avoided by literary wussies, the Everest of difficult fiction, which has scuttled so many foolish takers. I’ve dipped into its brambled pages and got instantly lost and tangled in the impregnable modernist foliage. More trouble than it’s worth. While we’re at it, let’s add Joyce’s indecipherable “Finnegans Wake” (1939), another provocation for brawny brains and paragons of patience I will never read.

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“Infinite Jest” (1996). 1,088 pages of post-modern tomfoolery and intellectual acrobatics, David Foster Wallace’s cult classic daunts and taunts. Not many conquer Wallace’s brilliant, monster challenge to hip, erudite readers, with its formal elasticity, cerebral satire, and devastating commentaries on everything from television to tennis. Another behemoth that I’m afraid I can’t swallow. (Though I relish his non-fiction. Does that count?) 

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 “The Goldfinch” (2015). Adult fiction that reads like children’s literature, Donna Tartt’s old-fashioned opus is clammily contrived and wears a twee Dickensian frilliness. (It also, mystifyingly, won a Pulitzer.) I read almost half of its 976 pages, waiting for the story to grow muscle, to grow up. It’s a squishy coming-of-age tale so banal it’s hard to believe. If it was a movie, Chris Columbus would direct. (Actually, John Crowley, of “Brooklyn” fame, is directing the film. What are you going to do?)

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“Moby-Dick” (1851). I read about a fifth of Melville’s whale tale, and after a peppy start, alive with humor and heart and humanity, the slog began. I’ve heard you must muscle through, machete swinging through the anesthetizing filler and maddening digressions, and a grand story will emerge. But it’s simply too hard to focus on a crowded page when your eyes are so glazed over. 

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“Pride and Prejudice” (1813). I wrote the following here last summer: “I can’t do Jane Austen’s ‘Pride and Prejudice.’ I’ve tried to read it three times, and each time, at around page 20, I crinkle my nose, toss my head back, issue a fluttering sigh, then slap the book shut. Slap. Pinched and prissy, the prose is like flossy streamers of chirp and chatter, candied and precious and irritating.” Hmm, I’ll stand by that.

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“Gravity’s Rainbow” (1973). I’ve read some of Thomas Pynchon’s other novels and I am no fan. Here’s how a site described the author’s extravagant, fireworks-shooting, 760-page magnum opus: “Quantum mechanics, mass extinction, speculative metaphysics — heavy stuff. It doesn’t help that Pynchon’s style is free-flowing and flashback-heavy. This has been called the definitive postmodern novel.” I respectfully pass.

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Anything by Charles Dickens (lived 1812-1870). I delighted reading “A Christmas Carol” as a child, but since then my relationship with the granddaddy of Victorian fiction has been a frustrating failure. Every so often I will try again to read one of his bloated novels — I picked up “A Tale of Two Cities” three times before I tossed it — but they’re so fussy, so verbose, so cutesy, even, with all those belabored character names. The books aren’t light. They go down like molasses: cloying, thick and sticky.

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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.