Novelist Nico Walker on Robbing Banks, Reading Dostoevsky, and Getting Brainwashed by the Army
After a stint in the army and a spell as a heroin addict, Nico Walker became a bank robber — a move that landed him in prison for almost a decade. That’s when he wrote Cherry, his first novel and now a motion picture starring Tom Holland. Jacobin spoke with Walker about the Iraq War, socialism in Bolivia, and why robbing a bank is easier than it looks.
- Interview by
- Alex N. Press
Nico Walker was in prison for bank robbery when Cherry, his first novel, became a best seller. The book is a fictionalized account of his adult life before incarceration. The short version is that he served in the Iraq War as a medic, returned to Ohio and developed an opioid addiction, and began robbing banks. (For the long version, read Cherry.) He was arrested in 2011.
Walker wrote Cherry while already incarcerated; the money from his publishing contract went to pay some of the restitution he owed the banks. He was released from state custody last year, just as the pandemic hit the United States, and Cherry is now a movie adapted by the Russo brothers and starring Tom Holland, of Spider-Man fame.
On the occasion of the movie’s release, Jacobin’s Alex N. Press spoke with Walker about serving in the US military, passing time in prison, and what he plans to do now. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve previously said you haven’t watched Cherry. Are you still planning to skip it?
I’ve seen parts of it but I haven’t watched it in its entirety and I don’t believe I will. I read the script and it’s quite different from the book. They have creative license to do what they want; they’re artists trying to make their art and I respect their right to do that. I did the book the way I did it and I want to leave it intact in my own mind.
A lot of Cherry is about being in the US military during the Iraq War. You were deployed from late 2005 to late 2006, and you went on around 250 combat missions and got a lot of medals and commendations for that. What led you to join up during the war?
I knew one guy who had been there, and one who was going. And I wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire. I was working minimum-wage or less-than-minimum-wage jobs. I was selling weed. I didn’t feel great about where I was going or what I was doing. Then the election came around: I voted for John Kerry and he lost. It seemed like the war was going to be going on for a while. You’d hear about people getting stop-loss, where they can’t get out of the army. They’re being deployed for long periods of time. These were people my own age who were being killed or badly hurt. I felt a lot of guilt about that.
I wasn’t in a hurry to go kill somebody, but it seemed like being a health care specialist was alright. I wouldn’t want to disrespect anybody’s personal decisions but, in retrospect, I think maybe it wasn’t a good thing, because it was, in a sense, endorsing what was going on. But I didn’t see it that way at the time; I saw it as something inevitable and wanted to try to alleviate some of the suffering.
I also had personal history with the army; I wouldn’t have been born without it. My mom was born in Europe. Her father died and her mother remarried a guy in the US Army and that’s how she came to America. He was in the military for twenty years and retired. He was working at Nabisco or something at the time, but even still, when I was a kid, they lived by an army base. He took me to family day at the base. The army didn’t seem alien to me.
Having known it so well, was there anything surprising about it once you joined?
It was my first time ever being institutionalized. Not having any control over what you’re doing, where you are, and when you can be there is a hard adjustment. It isn’t fun.
I also thought that I would be able to stay out of it mentally, and I was surprised by just how effective the process is where they break you down and build you up again. They make the army your identity. Even if you come in wary or with an attitude, it’s like being brainwashed. It’s hard to resist; it gets in you regardless. Maybe that’s not true for everybody, but, in my case, I thought I’d be able to keep my individuality more than I did. I fell in line.
I know someone who was an Army Ranger and became a conscientious objector. He says something similar, that when he decided to leave, he felt like he was letting people down.
You get a guilty conscience. It’s like you’re betraying your parents. It was hard, too, but by the time I left, I couldn’t avoid coming to the conclusion that it was a lot of bullshit. It wasn’t on the level either: you could tell that what you were being told wasn’t true, and that the reasons they gave you for what was going on were a stretch.
Do you have something specific in mind?
It being the United States, we’ve had it hammered into us that there are the good guys and the bad guys. You go over there thinking you’re going to protect the people who live there from mysterious insurgents, that these were bad guys doing bad things and no one wanted them there. But it seems to me now that you’re antagonizing the people that live there so much that somebody is going to lash out at you, and that response then justifies your being there. That was a big letdown. You thought you were there to stop these bad guys, but it turns out you were there to make more of them. That was hard to put together because you’re in denial about it and your own self-respect is tied up with the belief that you’re doing something real. You’ll tell yourself things that aren’t necessarily true, and they ring false to you, but you put it aside.
Once you left the military, what was it like to return to civilian life?
In Iraq, you’d kick in doors. Kicking a door in requires a level of aggression that transcends what is recommended for living civilly. It isn’t as if you leave the military and it’s gone. If you get to know somebody who is coming back from combat operations, you may not find that person especially likable or relatable, and you may not want them around. There’s trouble relating to other people, and there’s trouble being comfortable in your own skin.
I remember taking Oxycontin and feeling like I could deal with people and not be so high-strung. I didn’t know anything about physical addiction, about withdrawal and dope sickness. But fast forward a year or two and you’re banging heroin every day; you couldn’t have imagined how sick you’d get. It’s not like you don’t feel well, it’s that you can’t function. If you don’t have that one thing, you’re going to fall to pieces.
So you get an opioid habit and then you start robbing banks. Where’d you get that idea?
It was sort of out of necessity. I owed someone money, I didn’t have it, it wasn’t coming to me, and I needed it quickly. I thought bank robbery was a little more profitable than it actually was: you have to do some things that I wasn’t willing to do to get the grand prize. But to rob a bank without threatening anyone or using particularly strong language means you don’t get a lot of money. Did I steal as much as I needed? Yes, I did. But it wasn’t like I robbed a bank and was free at last. The money was gone the next day.
I had no intention of doing it again because I assumed I was going to be caught instantly. But I wasn’t. A month or two later, I owe someone money again and there’s no money coming to me, so I say, well, I’ll do this one more time. That one went a little better, but the money was still gone pretty quickly. I was sure I was going to get caught the second time because they had an amazing surveillance photo of me.
Did you see it on the news?
Yeah, people even called me asking “Did you rob a bank?” I don’t know why I didn’t get caught. I did like getting away with it, until I didn’t. I didn’t even get nervous after the first time. I’d just feel that happiness when you get away with it, sort of how it feels to quit or get fired from a job you hate. That first afternoon when you feel free? It was that feeling, but with more adrenaline mixed into it. But it’s like anything else: you go into it thinking it’s a one-off and that way you can justify it to yourself.
How’d you get caught, and how many banks had you robbed at that point?
I was charged with eleven counts of bank robbery. They knew by the last time I did it: you have to go all the way to trial to get the full discovery, so a lot of it remains a mystery, but I was being followed that morning by multiple police departments. I’d stop someplace and before you could say “Jack Robinson,” the police would show up. The banks even had security guards by then because of me. It was getting hard to find space to do it, but I thought I had a window and I took it. But it was a done deal. The police found a gun in a bag in the car and it was similar to a gun that had been seen in a surveillance photo from several days before. There was also a bunch of money that I had just stolen. So, it was an open-and-shut case.
The cops made a beeline for me on the road and it was clear that they knew who they were looking for. Eventually, they caught up with me. They had their guns drawn and at that moment, I decided that I didn’t want to get ventilated. So I held my hands up so they could see them. Once I was out of the car, it was clear there was something wrong with my back. It turns out I’d broken two bones in my spine driving off an embankment. They didn’t strap me to a spine board or immobilize me, they just put me in an ambulance. They were looking at me like they despised me and I just focused on trying to gain purchase with my heels so I didn’t fall on the floor. It was a bad day. Then I was dope-sick after I got to the hospital. I was shackled to the bed and throwing up all the time. I was in the hospital for a few days and then I went to jail. It was a rough time.
How many years did you serve?
I was in custody for nine years. I did eight and a half years in prison and then I was in a halfway house for six months afterward.
Where’d you serve out those years?
I was in CCA Youngstown for four or five months. Then I was at the MCC Chicago for a few months getting a mental health evaluation — it took about five minutes to be mentally evaluated by the guy who works for the prosecutor, whose job it is to say that you have no mental problems. Then I went back to Youngstown, then to Ashland. I got to Ashland in September of 2012 and left in October of 2019.
I know that a psychiatrist who testified on your behalf said that he’d never seen a more severe case of PTSD. What happened during the mental health evaluation in Chicago?
The guy’s job was to insult me. He said, “It’s more dangerous for me to go to the 7-Eleven in Chicago than it was for you in Iraq.” Five percent of my company had been killed, so I asked him, “Do 5 percent of the people who go to the 7-Eleven get killed?” It was frustrating.
You’ve spent a lot of your adult life in prison. How’d you pass the time?
The day I left prison, I’d spent one out of every four days in custody. That’s a hard pill to swallow. I probably would have died from fentanyl or something if I hadn’t gone to prison, so prison might have saved my life. But I was young when I got to prison and I wasn’t so young when I got out; a lot of the maturing that people do in their twenties and early thirties, I did in prison.
The biggest thing is that there’s not a lot to do and you don’t have bills to pay. You have a job, and I was lucky to get a job in the education department. I wanted to work in the library and applied to be a janitor. But they didn’t have any janitor jobs, and I got hired as a tutor for the GED program. So I was around books all day, and that was good. I read a lot — maybe four or five books a week. Because it was my first arrest, I was in a low-security prison. It was pretty safe and I tried to make the best of it.
I tried to live inside myself as much as I could and reading had a lot to do with that. I taught myself way more in prison than I’d ever learned in school. When I was in Youngstown, I was confronted with the fact that I was a total fuckup and a piece of shit and dangerously stupid. I was so embarrassed by that and it propelled me through years of sustained effort trying to catch up. It’s amazing to me all the things that I didn’t know.
Was any book particularly revelatory in those years?
As far as literature goes, Dostoevsky’s The Idiot stands out. The selection at Youngstown jail was not great; it was a lot of Louis L’Amour books and thrillers, which I didn’t really enjoy. But I chanced into a copy of The Idiot and saw how he balances a farce and a tragedy at the same time, and does these amazingly well-executed scenes where someone is showing their ass. The guy writes social awkwardness so well. I’d never reread books before, but being in jail, there weren’t a lot of good books, so if you found a good book, you’d read it over and over again the way you’d watch a DVD over and over again. When you do that, you can see how it’s done.
Cherry definitely balances farce and tragedy. The plot’s so dark but it’s such a funny book.
I love Dostoevsky for that. [Thomas] McGuane, who I read much later, is really good at that too, especially in Nobody’s Angel. It’ll tear your heart out but that tragedy is set in a total farce and it’s able to turn on a dime.
It’s a complicated thing, engaging in violence on behalf of the United States and then, at least in some sense, finding yourself on the receiving end of that repressive power in prison.
I guess what goes around comes around. But I do get frustrated about it. For example, take the protests that were going on last summer. You have people in Congress, the Pelosis and Schumers, who say they support Black Lives Matter and pat themselves on the back for it. But do they really mean it? Of course black lives matter — you don’t get points for saying that, you have to do something about it.
Police are killing people. They’re killing black people. It isn’t just black people, they kill everybody, but that community is especially targeted. Why is it targeted? One reason is that cocaine possession is such a serious offense that it’s okay for people to die over it. If politicians want to make positive change, they could do it this year by saying police can no longer terrorize someone because they suspect them of being a drug dealer.
Look at what happened in Kentucky with Breonna Taylor. It was a no-knock raid in the middle of the night about cocaine. They shot through the wall of a house over cocaine and killed this woman. Everyone says it’s the police who did it, and they’re certainly culpable. But what about the judge who signed the warrant? What about the prosecutor who initiated this investigation? What about the people in Congress who are content to have these federal laws that lead state and city laws and force someone who is addicted to drugs or just suspected of being involved with drugs to forfeit their human rights and dignity because the police can harass and terrorize and shoot them?
You said in another interview that you’re interested in Bolivian politics. I’m sure you’ve seen that the secretary of state recently said he’s “deeply concerned” about “anti-democratic” behavior in the country, which is not a good sign.
Bolivia was trying to keep the United States from interfering in its politics. But it’s a socialist government, and that’s unacceptable in Washington — look at what they do with Venezuela. I was crestfallen when there was a coup. They slandered and tried to jail the president. The mainstream media was a mouthpiece for the security state, just the same as the local news broadcast is a mouthpiece for the prosecutor’s office. The guy was a very popular president, and he was doing a lot for a lot of people.
I count myself, if I’m anything, as a socialist. A lot of people throw the word “socialism” around in the United States without knowing what it means. They think it’s a nightmare world where you don’t have any freedom or all your personal possessions are owned by the state. But look at Bolivia: people are poor there, yes, but that’s not because it’s a socialist country, it’s because of things that have a lot to do with other countries. How can they afford to enact socialist policies? Maybe it’s because they don’t spend $100 million per bomb or finance imperial armies and set up missile bases. But now that there was a coup, the United States is bent out of shape because the people who did the coup might go to prison. They weren’t concerned when that government was firing live ammunition into crowds of protesters. Why are they concerned now?
It’s bad. Look at all the hawks in office. People danced in the street when Biden was elected, and Trump is obviously not a good guy — anyone who is pro-waterboarding should not be the president — but this is no cause for celebration. Where are we going to start spilling blood next? But I hope Bolivia comes out of it; it’s one of those rare inspiring instances where something terrible happens and they’re able to come out of it. Democracy worked, for once, maybe.
Setting aside the repressive aspects of your most recent institution, the culture industry, you’re finally free. What do you plan to do?
It’s ironic: I think I was let out the day lockdown started in Mississippi. But I’ve written most of a book — it’s about prison, different kinds of prisons — and hopefully it’ll be in print by early next year. I was a real fucking asshole last time I did this life stuff, so I would like to try and do positive things. I don’t want to take things for granted. But I want to write for as long as they’ll let me. If I don’t do a good job, I’ll lose my spot, and that would be just as well. I hope that whatever I’m writing is relevant and not a waste of people’s time.
I was glad to write Cherry — I have nothing against people in the military, but I don’t like all that hero shit, so I thought it was good to be able to write an anticlimactic Iraq War book. I don’t imagine I’m important enough that anybody would listen to me, but if I can contribute to a greater conversation that needs to be had, then I hope I’ll do that.