The World as Prison

Guarding the perimeter. Qatar, 2006.

Where does prison literature begin and where does it end?  At the prison gates? Only with jailed writers? Given the sprawling impact of prisons on American society, no definition of prison literature will hold.

Instead, we must recognise that just as prison begins long before a prisoner enters its gates, so too prison literature begins with stories of how someone arrived there. 

Nico Walker’s Cherry (Knopf, 2018), written from prison, is a semi-autobiographical novel that traces the narrator’s life as a student, soldier, drug addict, and bank robber.  The novel has received a great deal of attention, gathering reviews in the New York Times and down the journalistic line.  Some reviewers appear attracted by the novelty of a writer published by a major house and who is currently serving an 11.5-year prison sentence.

No one should be surprised.  Walker is only one of the impressive voices emerging from US prisons and jails stuffed with some 2.5 million prisoners.  With that many people inside there are bound to be good writers publishing despite (and possibly because of) the difficulties they face in finding time, space, and inner strength. 

Several of Cherry’s latter chapters where Walker describes the manic lives of addicts continually searching for their next heroin fix reminded me strongly of work I have read in the prison where I teach. 

There was one drug dealer writing a memoir of his street life in Phoenix, including a moving sequence when he recalled when he was shot for the third time, sitting peacefully on a curb, and watching the world with detached curiosity as he bled out and nearly died.  Reading his memoir I learned that Grand Avenue apartments were a preferred site for drug operations because state employees from nearby government offices could come get their fixes during lunch hour.  Many more prison writers provide similar education for the straights, those who watch this world from its nominal outside.    

In American literary history, the association between drugs and prison was not as close as it has become today after decades of the War on Drugs.  Frankie Machine, the card-shark and heroin addict in Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm, slides through his collapsing life without coming near prison.  Only ‘Lexington,’ the long-defunct Public Health Service hospital facility in Kentucky that treated drug addiction, appears in the narrative background. 

Similarly, William S. Burroughs’s semi-autobiographical heroin novel Junkie relates self-admission to Lexington rather than incarceration for drug offences.  Other well-drugged white Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac glided past prison without stopping; when Malcolm X went to prison it was for larceny rather than his drug-dealing; the same held for Etheridge Knight, who used and dealt drugs but went to prison for armed robbery; and Hunter S. Thompson avoided prison despite voluminous decades-long drug consumption.    

For at least the last fifty years the association between drugs and prison writing has tightened as mass incarceration built momentum atop law-and-order policies, three-strikes legislation, and truth-in-sentencing.  William Wantling, who published lyrical, rebellious poetry from the mid-1960s until the early 1970s, exemplified this increasingly close linkage.  In “Who’s Bitter?” from his In the Enemy Camp (2015) collection, Wantling wrote:


when the State of Illness

caught me bending over

2 jugs of Codeine

cough medicine

& charged me w/Possession

& Conspiracy

I shrieked

in idiot joy

For Wantling, the state of Illinois was the killjoy whose violence denominated lives and built prisons to contain those who refused to obey its rules.  It is more the prison-state that is ill, less the prisoner. Recognising this point marks a dominant perspective in modern US prison literature.

In much the same place we meet Nico Walker, once an obedient warrior-servant of the American state. When we encounter his self-narrator in the prologue he has just robbed a bank and, his driver having taken off and left him behind, is trying to escape by walking calmly down the street. Walker writes, “Act like you love the police.  Act like you never did drugs.  Act like you love America so much it’s retarded.  But don’t act like you robbed a bank.  And don’t run.” Hunter Thompson was a teenage robber too but in 1956 he got away with it by agreeing to join the army. Walker and his narrator took the reverse course: war first, robberies later. 

Walker lives on a foreordained trajectory, one where he learns violence from mindless obedience in the army. He ships out to Iraq as a medic where he lives with overturned burning Humvees, a daily supply of concealed IEDs, and “shoeless haji kids” who will become the next generations of shooters. His is a reserve army unit where former police officers, pimps, and drug dealers live with the common purpose of going home in one piece. 

There is an interesting absence of overt politics in Walker’s characterisation of the Iraq War.  It is haji this, haji that, and porn sessions back at the base. Iraqis and women have major roles throughout the narrative but the Iraqis are psychological blanks and the women have minimal depth. The narrator remains concerned largely with how the world impacts himself and worries little about why it does so. His preoccupation lies with how many men his wife Emily has been sleeping with, not why he is in Iraq at all.

One officer makes the connection between sex and the imminent risk of death.  “To two smells,” he toasts, “pussy and gunpowder…Live for one.  Die by the other.  L-l-l-l-l-love the smell of both.”  What Walker describes is a constant search for highs in the midst of an endless search-and-destroy mission against self-aware consciousness.

On his return to the US, the narrator can only continue a civilian version of this destructive behaviour.  OxyContin, heroin and Iraq are the same missions written differently.  At first, it goes well: “There is nothing better than to be young and on heroin.”  But darkness follows him. He dreams of Iraq and its roadside IED deaths. “I’d be dead in my dreams and then die some more, and when I woke up I was tired.” The descent continues and he picks up a short-lived new career as a bank robber. Only prison awaits.

Cherry provides a portrait of how state-sanctioned violence against brown people abroad comes home.  Among the victims, Walker suggests, are those who plunge needles into their arms to escape memories of violent sights. 

Photograph courtesy of Morning Calm Weekly News. Published under a Creative Commons license.