In 2012, Jess Walter’s bestseller, “Beautiful Ruins,” brought Hollywood amusingly and brilliantly to life. The story centered on two glamorous aging wrecks: Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who began a sizzling love affair while filming “Cleopatra.” Walter’s latest novel, “The Cold Millions,” couldn’t be more different but it brings that same energy to the callous world of 1909 Spokane, Wash., the author’s hometown. Where once he mocked the superficial allure of Tinseltown, and its movie stars, in this Walter, a multi-award-winning writer and Pulitzer Prize nominee, throws his hat in with homeless workers, railway hobos and union organizers. It should read like a historical novel about the struggle for fair pay and improved working conditions, and, at times, it does. However, it is mostly a book of appealing characters, stressful adventures and uproarious fun, celebrating the forgotten heroes who devoted their lives to ensure the dignity of American work.
The novel follows two working-class brothers in Spokane during the violent repression of laborers and free speech in the early 20th century. With the city doubling in size every six years, it “felt like the intersection of Frontier and Civilized … the final gasp of a thing before it turned into something else.” Like Steinbeck’s Okies who left Oklahoma for California, Walter’s protagonists are industrious laborers who wander wherever they can find a job, only to often end up reviled as tramps and beggars. This is a period of increasing xenophobia, when moneyed interests stirred up alarm about “filthy foreigners,” godless socialists, union organizers and other boogeymen who still trouble the dreams of American capitalists.
Orphaned and penniless, Ryan “Rye” and Gregory “Gig” Dolan are trudging along with thousands of other men known as “the cold millions.” These vagabonds are constantly enticed into dangerous jobs, conned out of their wages and then driven off by club-wielding thugs. Gig, at 23, acts as a surrogate father for Ryan, a naive 16-year-old, after the death of their parents in Montana. Gig is a charming idealist so handsome he turns heads on the street. A self-taught intellectual, he’s fed up with a country in which “a rich handful lived in the clouds while the rest starved and slaved.” He is drawn to the International Workers of the World (IWW), nicknamed the Wobblies – a big-tent union that welcomes everyone. A fervent believer in nonviolence, he feels that “whoever fights monsters should see to it that … he does not become a monster.” Rye is quiet and shy, “a back,” a diligent worker who wants a forever home and a stake in life – and who has a surprising weakness for nice clothes. He doesn’t know what to think, but he adores his older brother and follows him to a free speech rally that gets them both badly beaten up and jailed, a misery that leads to even more hazardous ordeals.
Busting up unions in this era is extremely physical. Cops and private security “goons” smash heads, arrest peaceful demonstrators, and often kill those who dare to try to organize. “Free speech” can cost life and limb. Into this explosive environment, the author inserts several real historical figures, the main one being Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. A New York City native and fiery orator on behalf of the Wobblies, she’s known as the “East Side Joan of Arc,” and “The Rebel Girl” condemned as the “she-dog of anarchy.” In the 1930s, she gravitated to the Communist Party but she is only 19 when she arrives in Spokane in 1909. She’s pregnant, has left her husband behind in another state and, on several counts, she’s a persona non grata to the city’s movers and shakers. (A decade after the events of this novel, Gurley helped found the ACLU.)
Then there’s the mining tycoon Lemuel Brand who, aided by his mistress, Ursula the Great, hires spies and roughnecks to keep his companies union-free. On the other side, aligned with Gig and the IWW, are Jules, a Yakima, Wash., miner, and Early Reston, a brute wary of Gig’s commitment to nonviolence.
Teenage Rye ties the novel’s elements together. To his amazement, he finds himself recruited to accompany Flynn across the West, raising money to hire the famous Clarence Darrow as the IWW’s defense lawyer. Rye is spellbound by this remarkable young woman, captivated by her eloquence, energy, and beauty. He feels like he’s been “swept up in a typhoon.” Gig, on the other hand, has his eye set on Ursula the Great, the striptease artist who sings in a cage with a hungry cougar. (Her secret? Beef liver sewn into the corset.) It’s that sort of novel, alive with a dazzling range of outrageous characters – including a double-crossing anarchist, a millionaire with a vast network of spies and a matter-of-fact assassin who would rather not kill members of the fairer sex, but with “half the world being women, you can’t avoid it.”
In subplots, the author refers to other warts on America’s national narrative. Spokane itself is built on the former hunting grounds of slaughtered Native Americans. And his female characters suffer all the restrictions common to the era. The plot moves along at a quick and steady pace and Walter’s characters’ dialogue is perceptive and sharp. He is a wonderful storyteller. “The Cold Millions” may be about America’s turbulent past but 2020 and 2021 suggest that all this is anything but past.