These two new books powerfully depict a national crisis — and in the process, tell urgent American stories
Credit: Knopf; Little, Brown and Company

Two of August’s biggest new books — one reported nonfiction, the other memoiristic fiction — jointly convey a critical message: We’re in the midst of a national emergency.

With 2 million Americans now addicted to opioid painkillers, like OxyContin, and nearly 50,000 dying from opioids over a recent 12-month span, the country is in the throes of a medical crisis. It emerged as a talking point in the previous election cycle, yet the problem has only accelerated — even as the media still tends to push it to the fringe. Enter Dopesick and Cherry, devastating calls to action that affirm the galvanizing power of pointed, human storytelling.

Journalist Beth Macy (Factory Man) wrote Dopesick after witnessing deadly drugs spreading around her Roanoke, Virginia, hometown. Her book marks a definitive attempt at confronting the epidemic, from its source to its current scale. Divided into three parts, Dopesick unveils how doctors were prescribing powerful painkillers at alarming rates, how heroin then took over when Oxy and the like went into short supply, and then finally, what impact mass addiction has had on communities blighted by overdoses and death.

Macy is a terrific reporter, scrupulous in detailing the significance of her findings. She hits the big established points: why opioids are mostly hurting “politically unimportant places, hollows and towns and fishing villages,” and how their plight was propelled by corporate greed — particularly that of Purdue Pharma, the firm behind Oxy. For those coming into Dopesick already aware of the basics, then, it can read a little too familiar. And while each number Macy cites in the book (and there are many) indicates horror and urgency, certain sections are overstuffed with figures.

But fortunately, Macy’s heart is with the people. Dopesick’s second section — filled with gut-wrenchingly candid interviews with addicts and their families — is the most essential, placing broken faces onto horrifying data sets. One grieving mother wonders how her son could go “from being a high school football hunk… to a heroin-overdose statistic.” The answers Macy arrives at are bleak, fatalistic, and enraging.

The unnamed narrator of Cherry, Nico Walker’s coarsely poetic debut, feels like another case study of Macy’s. Where Dopesick takes a macro view of the crisis, covering centuries to reveal its roots, this novel provides an agonizing character study. The young man in question is of decent means, with a trail of events — he loses his job; his girlfriend, Emily, moves away — that lead him to join the Army circa 2005. He’s shipped to Iraq thereafter.

The book is gritty, profane, and raw. It opens on a flash-forward of sorts, with the protagonist and Emily shooting up heroin. He winds up on the floor, unconscious, with his pants “undone” and his “balls cold.” Walker’s first-person prose reads remarkably — at times uncomfortably — authentic, lyrically clunky. It’s also brutally unsentimental. Cherry’s hero sees nothing but death and despair in Iraq and has no illusions about the war’s purpose. “We were pretending to be soldiers,” he says. “The Army was pretending to be the Army.” He encounters needles and drugs in his role as a medic, which shapes his future addiction. Walker traces his journey with impressive clarity, without it seeming calculated.

Cherry has a unique backstory. Walker wrote the novel while in prison; he’s serving an 11-year sentence for bank robbery. Like his book’s narrator, he too returned from war seeing more dope at home than opportunity, got hooked on prescription pills, moved to heroin, and turned to crime to fund his addiction. Cherry’s immediacy reads like a product of that intimate connection, and lends the novel a real distinctiveness: Walker’s prose resembles that of Denis Johnson (particularly Jesus’ Son), only a little rougher around the edges. Indeed the writing here is conspicuously uneven. Its uncompromising nature at times feels less realistic than crude, less relentless than repetitious; character depth isn’t the primary goal here, but Walker doesn’t have a firm grip on Emily, a figure of both sympathy and culpability who lacks internal consistency.

Walker’s expression still shines through. One major reason: Cherry doesn’t ask for pity. It presents a landscape ravaged by war and drugs, greed and pain, and introduces a voice that sounds ugly only until you read closely enough to see the beauty lying underneath an American tragedy.

Cherry: B+
Dopesick: B+