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“Hopefully He Won’t End Up Robbing Banks Again”: The Wild Life of Nico Walker

After a bestselling debut novel, ‘Cherry,’ and a major motion picture adaptation by the Russo brothers, one of the literary scene’s brightest new stars is trying to prove that his success wasn’t a fluke. But first he has to adapt to life outside of a cell.

Ringer illustration

Nico Walker is marching in circles around his house, thinking back on the time that someone tried to stab him with a pencil shank in prison. “Believe it or not, it was over algebra,” he says, elaborating that he was a GED tutor while incarcerated, teaching his fellow inmates, some of whom had short fuses. “He fuckin’ fortunately missed when he took the swipe, because he was trying to bury the motherfucker in me.”

A brief pause—a brief wash of the reality of someone attempting to kill him. “But anyway,” he says, shifting the tone, “he ended up having every fucking tooth kicked out of his head on the yard a little bit later,” because he was “putting on airs” about who he was, Walker explains, matter of fact. “It sucked because one of the guys who kicked his fucking head in was the top scorer on our soccer team—and we [lost him] in the playoffs. And we didn’t win.”

This roller-coaster ride of an anecdote is classic Nico—morose, blasé, hysterical, and, to some, probably a little offensive. It’s all the components you’ll find in Cherry, Walker’s 2018 semi-autobiographical debut novel, which he wrote while in prison and which serves as a road map for how he got there in the first place.

The story is as hard to believe as it is impossible to make up: Walker served in the Iraq War as a U.S. Army medic, and developed a devastating case of PTSD; after spiraling into heroin addiction upon return to his native Cleveland, he picked up the hobby of robbing banks. Ten of them. He was caught after a police chase, which ended with him crashing his car, breaking two bones in his back. In 2012, a somewhat sympathetic judge sentenced him to 11 years in federal prison, where he arrived to serve out his term in a wheelchair.

“I hope it doesn’t bother you that I’m pacing around,” he says over a video call on his phone. Walker is speaking from Oxford, Mississippi, where he’s been living since being let out slightly ahead of schedule—into a halfway house in the fall of 2019, and on supervised release in the spring of 2020. His hair is longer than the military/prison crew cut he’s had for most of his adult life, and, clearly appreciating the newfound freedom of stylistic expression, he’s also adorned with mascara and a soft blue eyeshadow.

Over a button-up and tie, the white sweater he’s wearing reads “Porn Carnival” in sequined cursive—a promotional item from Rachel Rabbit White’s 2019 poetry book of the same name. The sweater was lent to him by White, who’s occasionally in the background of the video call; the couple got engaged last year, and White relocated to Oxford. (They’re hoping to move to New York together sometime soon.)

Walker lights his first of several cigarettes during our conversation, which is an action I learn to value, because it means the twitchy figure on my screen is about to sit down for at least a few minutes. “They wouldn’t let me smoke in the Apple interview,” he says, taking a drag of a Winston Red. “Monsters.”

The lighting gear is still in the living room from the promotional interview he did earlier in the day for Apple TV+, the distributor of the film version of Cherry, the production of which Walker had essentially nothing to do with. This detachment may well have been the way he wanted it, but it wasn’t like there was any other choice: When the film rights were officially sold, for a cool million bucks, Walker was still very much incarcerated. (The negotiation slowed down at one point because he ran out of allocated phone minutes.) He had to take others’ word for it that Joe and Anthony Russo, the filmmakers eager to make the adaptation, were the directors of the highest-grossest film ever made (Avengers: Endgame), and that they wanted Spider-Man himself (OK, Tom Holland) to play the lead, a thinly veiled portrayal of Nico.

“I had been in jail since before the fucking Avengers ever happened,” Walker says in his gravelly drawl. “I went to jail when Tobey Maguire was Spider-Man. I didn’t know who Tom Holland was.”

Walker is now 35 years old, and has been to hell and back several times over. His early years, however, were as charmed as one can hope, growing up in a well-to-do family in suburban Cleveland. It was a decision to join the military at 19 that changed his direction for the worse.

“I knew people who had [served in the Middle East] and were going over there,” he says, trying to pinpoint his rationale for joining. “If I was gonna be guilty in this just by filling up a gas tank, living in America, and having that communal guilt, I was gonna go through it. I was gonna put my ass on the motherfucking line.”

Enlisted as a “health care specialist,” he figured he would be stationed in something like a hospital, helping people. “I kind of naively thought—and I admit naively—that if I were a medic, it was like you weren’t condoning the killing,” he says. “I didn’t even know that medics carried guns. I didn’t do a lot of research.”

The reality was much more severe than he had hoped: In 2005, Walker was attached to an infantry unit deployed into the so-called “Triangle of Death,” south of Baghdad, during the most deadly phase of the war. For a full year, he was sent out nearly every day—sometimes multiple times a day—on highly dangerous patrol missions, regularly having to place bodies, or what was left of them, in bags. And to make matters worse, it didn’t even seem like the Americans were doing any good.

“You got there and you were like, ‘Man, this is kind of fake,’” he says. “It was just, like, go out there and piss these people off until somebody shoots at you or blows something up. And then go fuck some more shit up until they do it again. We were literally there to create conflict so they could report on it at home, and justify more fucking spending.”

By the time Walker returned home in 2007, he was being taken apart emotionally by his experiences; a forensic psychiatrist, Pablo Stewart, would later describe him as being “one of the most severely impaired trauma victims” he’d ever seen. Walker tried to go to college via the GI Bill, but flunked out as his addictions were worsening, and his marriage with his first wife, Kara, was disintegrating. Around all this, Walker was the lead singer and songwriter in a Libertines-inspired psychedelic garage rock band named Safari, developing some (well-deserved) interest in the local music scene.

On the track “Banger,” from 2010’s Maybe Tomorrow, Walker sings in a heavily reverbed voice, “So you don’t belong / So you don’t belong / So where do you go?” One verse later, he seems to complicate the issue even more: “Better have some money / Better have some money / Or they’ll get you for sure.”

Less than two months after that album came out, Walker began robbing banks as a means to cope with the PTSD—a compulsion he says was driven more by a desire to get out of his own head for a few high-octane minutes at a time than to snag a couple thousand dollars from a modest-sized bank. “If at any point along the way there had been a proper intervention, this wouldn’t have happened,” Stewart, the psychiatrist, told The New York Times. “He found his own cure, and it just happened to be robbing banks.”

In 2011, a feature about Safari was commissioned by the national music publication Consequence of Sound, but it was killed after Walker’s shocking arrest, which occurred “just days” before the story was scheduled to run, according to journalist Hilary Cadigan.

“The older you get the more you see that everybody’s spinning plates, just hanging on by a thread,” Walker was quoted as saying in the spiked article. “At any moment everything can fall apart.”

Walker lives in Oxford to be close to his manager, Matthew Johnson. Johnson has run Fat Possum Records there since the early ’90s, when his original focus was finding (and often coaxing) elder statesmen blues players, like Junior Kimbrough and R.L. Burnside, to release their music with him—and sometimes be managed by him as well. (A fair number of artists on his early roster had been incarcerated at one point or another; Burnside himself served time for killing an intruder on his property.) As the crop of traditional blues talents faded away over time, though, the label’s interest has shifted to accommodate neo-blues acts such as the Black Keys, who broke big after Fat Possum releases like 2004’s Rubber Factory, as well as acts that sound more like Safari.

“[He’s] trying to illustrate the evolution of the authentic anarchic howl—from Charley Patton to Eminem,” wrote Jay McInerney in a 2002 profile of Johnson in The New Yorker. “He seems to be looking for the anti-Whitmanesque strain of the American voice—the naysayers, the verbal bomb throwers, the primal screamers. His heroes are the antiheroes.”

Johnson has developed a reputation for living on his own terms, to say the least (in that New Yorker story, McInerney recalled a time Johnson sold him a car without informing him that said car was stolen), and to be sure, he was tough to get hold of. “Matthew’s not much of an emailer,” a kind voice at the Fat Possum office informs me when I call the label’s front desk, asking for some kind of help wrangling the boss, who was going on several days incommunicado. The label motto is “We’re Trying Our Best,” after all.

But eventually Johnson does get on the phone to talk about his client. “There are very few things I care about,” he says in a sludgy Southern accent, “and this is one of ’em.”

Simply put, Cherry wouldn’t exist without Matthew Johnson. After Walker recovered from his back injury (and overcame his heroin addiction cold turkey) in prison, a journalist named Scott Johnson (no relation to Matthew) came to visit him. The 2013 story Scott ended up writing for BuzzFeed, “How a War Hero Became a Serial Bank Robber,” developed substantial attention, and found its way to Matthew, who took a keen interest.

“I have a whole fucking bookcase dedicated to bank robbers,” says Matthew Johnson, who is also the co-owner of the indie publishing house Tyrant. “There’s a huge history with war veterans from the Civil War and bank robbery. … They’d never left some shitty county in Tennessee, and then they’d go to, like, Manassas, and 36,000 people would die in one day—they can’t go back and work in a general store. It’s that line from Full Metal Jacket: ‘All he needs is somebody to throw hand grenades at him the rest of his life.’”

Johnson, who was not unfamiliar with how to navigate the prison system, got in contact with Walker, and tried to convince him to use his time locked up to hone a new skill. “I was like, ‘Listen, kid, I’m 20 years older than you,’” Johnson remembers. “‘You’re gonna be the fucking asshole at the end of the bar telling somebody what really happened, and people are gonna roll their fucking eyes when they see you. The only way you’re gonna get out of the shadow of your own fucking life is to write this out.’”

At that point, Walker was studying plant propagation, with aims of becoming a gardener. He was tough to convince, even with Johnson’s insistence that he was “leaving a lot of money on the table.” But Johnson persisted, sending books as motivation, and soon Walker was sending back pages, written on a typewriter in the prison law library—though it was not exactly a smooth process.

“I was trying to be a smart guy or something,” Walker says, which in essence meant writing “like what a person who writes a book writes a book like.”

“It took us three or four years to do this,” Johnson explains. “It was the most pretentious, horrible horseshit that he wrote when he [first] sent it to me; it was like a Victorian dandy novel. And I was like, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’”

But eventually Walker sent a passage that “had fucking fire in it,” as he said—that was as wry and thoughtful and honest as Walker is in real life—and Johnson seized the opportunity. “I was like, ‘Whoa, this is actually good,’” he says. “‘Stop. Everything before this literally sucks.’”

Working many early mornings, and using grammar lessons he taught himself as part of GED tutoring, Walker found his voice: something like if there was a forgotten member of J.D. Salinger’s Glass family who grew up with Grand Theft Auto and access to internet pornography.

“We had a break from the snow and you could see the dormant grass,” a passage reads. “The day was cold but it was forgiving. It was time for a robbery.”

Originally planned for a release on Tyrant, where the goal would be to sell a couple thousand copies, the project developed into something that Johnson realized belonged at a bigger publisher. And after painstaking revisions with an editorial team at Knopf, largely having to be communicated over the phone, Cherry was released to widespread acclaim—and landed on bestseller lists. Nico didn’t need to study plant propagation anymore.

“Reading it—and I mean this with respect and sincerity—is like watching a naked man shoot Roman candles into the desert at twilight while violently puking on himself,” Jia Tolentino wrote about Cherry in The New Yorker, where the book was listed as one of the best of the year. Christian Lorentzen said in Vulture that it “might be the first great novel of the opioid epidemic.”

Still, it wasn’t just the literary crowd that Walker managed to capture. “I think this is one of the best portrayals of Army life in ‘The Suck’ that’s been written,” one Amazon reviewer wrote “from a soldier perspective.” “It’s an auspicious first book. Would be very interested in what follows.”

Rachel Rabbit White first had Cherry recommended to her after she presented on Albertine Sarrazin in a book club. White may have been initially drawn to Sarrazin’s story partially for its parallels to her own—like Sarrazin, who died in Montpellier in 1967, White is a writer who has also been a sex worker. But Walker came up in regard to the manner in which Sarrazin wrote her first two novels: in prison. Soon White found herself reading Cherry on a plane, unable to put the book down.

Some time later, after Walker was released to the halfway house, White received a request from a “shady” email address. “I want to buy some poems,” Walker wrote, reaching out about a magazine project that he was spearheading, which was eventually killed due to the pandemic. White asked Giancarlo DiTrapano, co-owner of Tyrant Books, whether this really was Walker, and DiTrapano confirmed that it was. He also told her, maybe half seriously, that she and Walker should date.

“I hadn’t had a thought in my head about Nico as any sort of romantic prospect until Gian said that,” White says over the phone. “Though I do remember, when I was reading the book, I looked at the [author] photo of Nico and I thought, ‘He is kind of cute, actually.’”

White and Walker started texting, and then calling, and then FaceTiming, and then she started traveling from New York to see him in Mississippi. It wasn’t long before Walker proposed. “Ah yes the hooker and the bank robber,” White wrote in an Instagram post going behind the scenes of their engagement photos.

But did she ever worry about getting seriously involved with someone with a past as complicated as Nico’s? “I think to an extent someone could say that about me, too,” she says. “It became clear to me, like, yes, he’s someone I should worry about in this transition—but only in terms of making sure he’s OK.”

No small thing, White found herself leading the unique social experiment of catching someone up on a decade of culture they had missed out on. She introduced him to memes and emoji (Walker thought the latter were text “decorations”); she played him Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo; she tried, futilely, to explain what the hell was going on with Lil Wayne these days. “We’d be really drunk, dancing or something, and he’d be like, ‘They did surgery on a grape, babe,’” she says with a laugh.

The new romance proved to be an important anchor, because it was an extremely difficult time for Walker at large. “I got out of prison, and the first thing I did was watch my mother die,” he says. (Walker’s mother, Liliana, passed away in February 2020 from leukemia.) “What she went through was really terrible. I’ve seen a lot of shit, and it was some of the worst shit I’ve ever seen in my life.”

Walker also had to deal with the destabilizing shock of being back in the outside world after nine years—an outside world that just so happened to be collapsing on itself in a developing pandemic. He was a mess. “I was shaking like a wet dog, man. It was so nerve-racking just to not be in prison anymore,” he remembers. “I was like, ‘I swear, I wish I was in fucking prison,’ because that’s where everybody I knew was. That was where my friends were.”

He doesn’t go into much detail—partially, he says, because he doesn’t remember how it started—but there was an incident, in which he says he almost died, and a hospital stint, in which he thinks he caught COVID-19; from there he was sent to a state-sanctioned rehab.

“Humbling” is how he describes the experience, especially in the way it opened his eyes to the magnitude of poverty and addiction issues that have a hold on so many in Mississippi. It was soon after he was cleared for release that White moved to be with him.

“One thing about Rachel is she’s always tried to lift me up,” Walker says. “Other people, they try to take from you, and Rachel is not that way.” In a 90-minute conversation, mostly about war and death and prison, this is the only moment when Walker tears up. “Probably my biggest fear—my biggest motivator—is letting her down. I don’t want to let her down.”

Between 2007 and 2017, the number of fatal overdoses in Ohio quadrupled, largely spurred by the rise of three successive waves of drugs: prescription opioids, followed by heroin, followed by fentanyl. Since 2007, overdoses have been the leading cause of accidental death in the state, overtaking car accidents, and in 2019, the state ranked third-worst in the country in overdose mortality rate, behind Delaware and West Virginia, according to the CDC.

“You know all that stuff about refrigerator trucks during the pandemic back in May or whatever?” Walker asks. “We had the refrigerator trucks in Cleveland for the heroin.”

In regard to the theme of addiction, Cherry’s Ohio setting is very distinct. And when Walker was deciding whether to agree to sell the film adaptation rights to Joe and Anthony Russo, who are from Cleveland, their shared hometown was at the center of it.

“I thought he had a real fuckin’ advantage in that,” Walker says, referring to Joe Russo, whom he talked to for “a total of four minutes” on the phone before the contract was signed. “I thought he would have respect for the town and not turn it into some kind of fucking joke or something.”

A desire to do the town justice ran both ways. “Reading the book, we were immediately drawn in because it dripped of Cleveland,” Anthony Russo said in an email. “We knew so many kids like Cherry, having attended an all-boys school.” (The book’s protagonist technically has no name, but in the screenplay he’s referred to as “Cherry,” which is military slang for a newbie.) “Joe even worked at the same restaurant as [Nico] did for a time. Growing up, there’s a sense of shame in being from the city that went bankrupt and where the mayor’s hair caught on fire, and we could identify how being from this place of urban decay colored Cherry’s view of himself and the world around him.”

The film version of Cherry, which was released in theaters last month and hits Apple+ on Friday, was mostly shot on location around Cleveland, and the result is a notably dark, visceral product from filmmakers whose last four directorial projects have been Marvel movies. And unlike those movies, war isn’t depicted as a comic book–inspired action sequence—it’s as bleak and dumb and violent as Walker describes.

But the movie does make plenty of other concessions in changing the story and tone to make it palatable to wider audiences, and perhaps sensing this, Walker still hasn’t opted to watch it himself. “I’m just a little possessive of my version of it,” he says. “When I think about the book, I don’t want to see the film. I want to see the book as I remembered it, ’cause it’s the only thing I’ve ever done in my life. So it’s kind of important to me.”

All things considered, Nico Walker is doing a lot better. White says he’s shaking off more and more of the “aura” of prison, and Walker says his drinking is under control, partially due to the help of Suboxone, a drug prescribed to fight a dependence on opioids. He says he still has nightmares, but mindfulness exercises and a form of self-induced exposure therapy (in which he focuses on traumatic incidents, rather than trying to dispel them) is helping his PTSD.

“I mean, I worry, but I worry about everybody,” says Johnson. “I think [Nico] just needs to keep working, and sort of let the rough side drag, you know what I mean? I don’t think he’ll ever be Eagle Scout of the Year or somethin’, but hopefully he won’t end up robbing banks again.”

Walker is far along on his second novel, which is a third-person story about prison. (He tried writing on a computer but ultimately decided that he preferred the typewriter method he used for Cherry.) White says it’s great (and very funny), but Walker is hesitant to wrap it up and send it in.

“It’s a lot of pressure right now, man,” he says. “I think that I’ve had a lot of luck, and sometimes your luck runs out.” He cites the German expression “einmal ist keinmal,” which translates to “once is never.” “You don’t wanna do anything just to do it,” he explains. “If you’re gonna do it, you need to do something good. Otherwise somebody else needs to have my spot. I don’t need to be doing it.”

Johnson thinks he does, though, not just for Walker’s own sake but also for the sake of the public. “Sometimes it’s just, like, you have all this goddamn shit that’s always stuck between the stations,” he says. “I guess people call it reality. It’s always buzzing on and on and every once in a while you can see things that are important. Every once in a while someone like Nico kind of pops up.”

Anyway, a million dollars isn’t what it used to be—particularly when $40,000 had to be used to repay the banks that Walker stole from. This was a detail that was reported in the press numerous times in the past few years, always with a vagueness that implied that Walker was sending the money as some kind of personal choice. Out of the goodness of his own heart. I ask him about that and he laughs.

“I had to,” he explains. “I had a restitution order.”

The banks don’t deserve your Cherry money, I say.

“They definitely don’t, but they got it,” Walker replies. “Fuck ’em.”

Nate Rogers is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, Stereogum, and elsewhere.

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