September 25, 2018

Nico Walker: veteran, convict, author


Photo via Knopf/Courtesy of Nico Walker

Sometimes life is stranger than fiction. Or at least strange enough to make for great fiction. Nico Walker is living proof of this.

Walker enlisted in the army at the age of 19, he served as a medic on 250 missions in Iraq. Struggling with PTSD after returning home to Cleveland, he developed a severe heroin addiction and began robbing banks to fund the habit. In 2012, he was sentenced to eleven years in prison for stealing nearly $40,000 in 10 separate bank heists.

Now, from inside prison, he’s a published author. Unlike much of contemporary fiction, Cherry was not written by a seasoned author, equipped with an MFA and a determination to make waves in the literary world. Laced with dark humor reminiscent of Denis Johnson’s work, Walker paints a bleak but never melodramatic picture of the life of his unnamed narrator, noting in a Yahoo interview that, “the old Russians were an influence on me…how they understood that you can’t write a tragedy if you don’t have a sense of humor.”

Perhaps more significant than the lack of pretension or high-brow posturing is the way in which Walker tells a story that is true for so many Americans who are rendered invisible, touching on issues that this country does not want to face, or even admit that it has: veterans suffering from debilitating PTSD as a result of wars borne of greed, a national opioid epidemic, and the everyday hardships of the white working class.

Walker was encouraged to start writing about his experiences when Matthew Johnson, co-founder of Fat Possum Records and part-owner of Tyrant Books, read by a profile on the war vet on Buzzfeed. The results? Walker cranked out some incredible work on a typewriter in an Ashland prison.

This book certainly raises questions about the current state of the prison industrial complex in the United States. What if all incarcerated people were encouraged to channel their pain, trauma, and their hopes, into something productive?

In prison arts programs across the nation (such as Project Paint in San Diego, an Aberdeen art exhibit in South Dakota, or Prison Performing Arts in Missouri), the incarcerated are able to find creative respite from a tense, traumatizing environment. Though Walker asserts Cherry is just as much fiction as it is autobiography, there is no doubting that it is, in one way or another, an act of self-reflection and a means of articulating a host of traumatic experiences. Works like Cherry let the reader to see into the life and mind of oft-forgotten members of society and champions writers like Walker to achieve empowerment by sharing these deeply personal narratives with the world.

Julie Goldberg is an intern at Melville House.