Graphic: Natalie Peeples

Nico Walker enlisted in the Army as a medic at the age of 19. Shipped off to Iraq, he participated in over 250 combat missions. He returned home 11 months later as ravaged as the IED-bombed Humvees that came to symbolize his tour of duty. Heroin helped numb the trauma, followed by robbing banks.

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Five years after a 2013 BuzzFeed profile of Walker comes his debut novel, Cherry, a fictionalized account of his life before, during, and after wartime. Heavily indebted to the profane blood, guts, bullets, and opiate-strewn absurdities dreamed up by Thomas McGuane, Larry Brown, and Barry Hannah, Cherry tells a story that feels infinitely more real, and undeniably tougher than the rest.

The first pages greet readers with what amounts to a happy scene of domestication. “‘Hey, sweetheart,’” Walker’s unnamed stand-in shouts to his on-off girlfriend/wife/trainspotter. “‘Come down and do some of this dope with me.’” The narrator’s clothes are pockmarked with blood stains and cigarette burns. He’s too doped up to take his dog out to pee. He rarely sleeps, but when he does, he dreams exclusively of war. “I’m twenty-five years old,” he says by way of introduction, “and I don’t understand what it is that people do.”

Flashback to 2003, and he’s failing out of college, bound for the military. The narrator signs his life away to become what the Army calls a Warrior Medic, bound for Iraq at a time when “kids [are] going off and getting themselves killed and maimed.” It doesn’t take long for him to pop his eponymous cherry, that is, experience the horrorscape that is combat. He pulls friends from burning wreckage, their faces burned away. Limbs litter dirt roads. His latex gloves melt on contact with ordinance-ravaged bodies. “People kept dying,” Walker writes. “In ones and twos, no heroes, no battles. Nothing. We were just the help, glorified scarecrows; just there to look busy, up the road and down the road, expensive as fuck, dumber than shit.”

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Secure in their forward operating bases, the soldiers marinate in porn, snuff films, dick jokes, and video games. They get high on liquor, Percocet, and pot brownies shipped overseas by friends and family. When all else fails they huff cans of computer duster. They tease starving Iraqi children with MREs; shoot dogs; daydream about fragging Iraqi police forces, their supposed battle allies; and blow up anything at hand—buildings, cows, clusters of date palms—for no other reason than the irrepressible dullness of war. They eschew their Army-issue body armor because it doesn’t look cool; kill “haji”; and kick down hundreds, if not thousands, of doors apiece, never knowing what they’ll find on the other side.

It’s like college, or high school, or that insidious hometown bar filled with men who never graduated beyond punching each other in the balls. Women fight in this Army, sure, but they’re sex objects, purely and without exception. The narrator and his infantry buddies lose their collective toxic-masculine minds when a woman, a cook no less, scores the company’s first kill—but this doesn’t stop them from trying to sleep with her. Battle patches are presented while Toby Keith’s “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)” plays on a boombox. “I was not a hero,” the narrator tells us, again and again. The war was a “moral anti-gravity,” Walker told BuzzFeed.

Back in the land of the red, white, and blue, he re-enrolls in college, gets hooked on heroin, scores grams with his FAFSA money, skips classes to search out dope, grows weed in his basement to subsidize his habit, and eventually turns to robbing banks.

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You know how the story ends. Military veterans return home, traumatized and socially adrift. Many turn to opioids, others suicide. Nico Walker somehow survived, and is now serving 11 years in a federal prison, where he wrote this book. He survived to leave us—and more importantly all past, present, and future veterans—with a lesson: Don’t rob banks. Don’t shoot dope. And, as Walker’s narrator warns, “Don’t ever join the fucking Army.”