Review: Jess Walter returns with tremendous, vivid historical novel 'The Cold Millions'
There’s an election next week that will mark the climax of an exhausting, dramatic year, but if you have the time and head space to read new-release fiction, it would be well spent on "The Cold Millions" (Harper, 352 pp., ★★★★ out of four), the latest book by best-selling author Jess Walter, and his first novel since 2012’s "Beautiful Ruins."
It’s a tremendous work, a vivid, propulsive, historical novel with a politically explosive backdrop that reverberates through our own: the unruly Spokane of the early 1900s, when tramps, laborers and unions warred with mining millionaires, corrupt government and a brutal, thuggish police force.
Brothers Rye and Gig Dolan are part of the city’s enormous underclass, “itinerants, vagrants, floaters, Americans” in search of honest work, hindered and preyed upon by exploitative employment agencies in cahoots with local government. Young, white and economically anxious, Rye and Gig become involved in the nascent Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, a union founded by socialists and radicals.
When the 1909 Spokane free speech fight lands the brothers and hundreds of other men in jail, 16-year-old Rye becomes a focal point of the struggle. He attracts the attention of famous labor leader and feminist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, one of a handful of historical figures who populate and enliven Walter’s novel. Nineteen and pregnant, she travels the West and stirs up trouble, speaking truth to power and scandalizing just about everyone she meets.
She and the IWW pose a threat to the city’s moneymen, including the delightfully tacky, villainous Lem Brand. A power broker with a stable of shady henchmen, he offers to help the imprisoned Gig in exchange for Rye’s allegiance. This is a tempting offer – Rye is not as idealistic as his older brother, and he craves stability after the deaths of his parents and other siblings left him alone in the world but for Gig.
Walter is a Spokane native, and he captures both the depth and breadth of this moment in his hometown’s history. “There was no place like it then, Spokane – such hell and hair on that town.” "The Cold Millions" gives us the grand tour, with a bounty of crime and intrigue and adventure anchored by an unforgettable ensemble cast.
About half of the novel is narrated in the third person from Rye’s point of view, but Walter brings in a multitude of first-person voices to bring the world roaring to life – Gig and Gurley Flynn, as well as a fleeing outlaw, a drunken hit man, and Ursula the Great, a vaudeville singer who performs in a cage with a mountain lion.
Rye and the rest of the poor and downtrodden – the titular cold millions – face income inequality, police brutality, and government corruption, issues that still plague America over a century later, despite the heroic efforts of so many for so long. As Gurley Flynn tells Rye, no one ever wins the war – “But to win a battle now and then? What more could you want?”
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