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With 2012’s Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter hit upon the ideal premise for his particular novelistic style: an unusually convincing fusion of social satire and shameless romanticism. That novel—a tale of crass Hollywood scheming and love at first sight in a tiny 1960s Italian coastal town—was a big hit, and the lack of a follow-up during the eight years since has only whetted the anticipation for Walter’s next book.
The Cold Millions, published at last, could hardly be more different that Beautiful Ruins, although it’s still recognizably a Jess Walter novel. In place of the sun-saturated Mediterranean and characters at the periphery of jet-set glamor, the setting is 1910 Spokane during a rawboned winter, and the characters are almost all down on their luck—if they had any luck to begin with. At the center of the story are two brothers, Gig and Rye Dolan, who hop freight trains around the West, picking up odd unskilled jobs and often sleeping rough. In Spokane, mining and timber provide plenty of this kind of employment, as well as taverns and brothels and other sources of tawdry entertainment, but to get hooked up with a job, itinerate laborers must pay a $1 commission to an employment agency. The agencies kick back money to the foremen, and the jobs often don’t last the week, so men like Gig and Rye find themselves paying out most of the money they earn just to get hired.
Meanwhile, the cops harass them as vagrants. The novel opens with the Dolans rousted from a baseball field where they’ve bedded down with a couple dozen other “bums, tramps, hobos, stiffs” whose seasonal work has evaporated. Vigilantes chase them off into the woods, incensed by the murder of a policeman, a crime that everyone reflexively assumes was committed by a tramp. An off-duty cop who nearly forces the brothers into the raging, frigid Spokane River also accuses them of violating “the anti-agitating law. No more than three men can gather for public speaking or organizing.” A stranger caught up in the raid with the Dolans expertly disarms one of their attackers and cold-cocks the cop, securing their escape.
This sort of persecution leads to the Spokane Free Speech Fight, the first in a series of civil disobedience actions in several Western cities, organized in large part by the International Workers of the World, or Wobblies. The Wobblies, as Rye notes, are “the one big union that took anyone as a member: Finnish logger, Negro seamstress, Indian ranch hand, even floater like them.” The Dolans are fictional, but most of the players in the showdown, between the IWW on one side and the police and the mining barons on the other, are historical—although in his acknowledgments, Walter explains that “what happens to the historical figures in the novel is generally what happened to them in life.” Spokane, as Rye observes, “felt like the intersection of Frontier and Civilized, the final gasp of a thing before it turned into something else.” Over the course of that winter, the Wobblies first came to widespread national attention protesting the laws that prohibited citizens (that is, labor union advocates) from speaking to public gatherings. By early spring, the city revoked the offending ordinance and the civil disobedience had spread to other cities.
Most of The Cold Millions is told from the perspective of Rye, only 16 and, unlike his handsome older brother, not especially interested in the labor movement. But Rye shows up for the Wobblies’ big protest out of brotherly concern, gets arrested with hundreds of other workers, and is confined under brutal conditions for a few days. When an idealistic lawyer gets him released, citing his tender age, the next thing Rye knows, he’s traveling the region under the wing of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a young, firebrand organizer raising money to hire Clarence Darrow to defend the many men, including Gig, still being detained. Rye’s job is to stand up, look young, and describe his abusive treatment at the hand of Spokane’s authorities.
At the heart of the novel lie the conflicting pulls on Rye’s loyalty. Lem Brand, a local mining magnate, promises to help get Gig released from jail if Rye spies on Flynn for him. Rye feels abashed by the pitiable way Flynn characterizes him during her fundraising speeches, but he can’t help being moved by her gallantry on behalf of others and her ability to talk them out of seemingly any scrape. Part of Rye wants to lie low and buy a parcel of land from the kind-hearted old Italian lady who lets the brothers sleep on her porch, but the longer he travels with Flynn (whom he calls Gurley), the more swept up he becomes in the cause. He’s also a bit in love with her, although he can barely admit it to himself.
Occasionally, Walter devotes a chapter to another character connected to the city: a 19th-century outlaw, the cop whose murder sets off the raid on the ballpark, Spokane’s police chief, a private detective hired by the deliciously fatuous Brand to do some very dirty work, a Native American friend of the Dolan brothers who does not survive his stint in jail, an actress who loves Gig but must consort with Brand because he owns the theater where she performs. Most of these people are at the other end of the kind of compromises dangled before Rye, people who are, as he sees it, “living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with no chance in this world.” They tend to end up dead by the time their chapters come to an end.
There’s one more character, too, less a man than an enigmatic trickster figure who flits through The Cold Millions with preternatural nimbleness, claiming to be an anarchist and impatient with the Wobblies’ nonviolent approach. He goes by the moniker of Early, certainly not his real name, and the rhyme with Gurley can be no coincidence. A chaos agent whose true allegiance remains obscure, Early seems to embody the desire to burn it all down, as opposed to the ethos of Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who tells Rye, “Men sometimes say to me: You might win the battle, Gurley, but you’ll never win the war. But no one wins the war, Ryan. Not really. I mean, we’re all going to die, right? But to win a battle now and then? What more could you want?”
The Cold Millions often feels like a Western, a story set in a distant time in a remote and alien place. (Not so much to Walter himself, though: He grew up in Spokane.) It contains lines as indecipherable as this: “They landed a gyppo logging crew on the St. Joe River, Gig talking his way onto one end of a two-man misery whip, Rye ladling water and pounding wedges in the kerfs to keep the saws from binding.” But to publish a novel this political and this deeply concerned with income inequality at this particular point in history is to beg comparisons between Rye’s day and our own. The stretch proves unwieldy, reducing the richness of a story so lovingly embedded in a distinct moment. Early could be made to stand for either Trump or antifa, and would Rye and Gig, if transported to the present, come up red or blue? The only character whose allegiance remains unquestionable is Gurley. The real woman was a feminist, a founder of the ACLU, and, when Rye reads her obituary in 1964, a fighter for civil rights and against McCarthyism. She, at least, got what she wanted.