Jess Walter returns with great ‘The Chilly Hundreds of thousands’
There’s an election next week that will mark the culmination of a busy, dramatic year. However, if you have the time and space to read newly published novels, use it for “The Cold Millions” (Harper, 352 pages). , ★★★★ of four), bestselling author Jess Walter’s latest book and his first novel since 2012, “Beautiful Ruins”.
It’s a formidable work, a living, driving, historical novel with a politically explosive backdrop that echoes through our own: the recalcitrant Spokane of the early 20th century, as vagrants, workers and unions against mining millionaires, corrupt governments and a brutal, sloppy one Police fought for power.
Brothers Rye and Gig Dolan are part of the city’s vast underclass, “hikers, vagrants, swimmers, Americans” in search of honest work that is hindered and persecuted by exploitative employment agencies in collaboration with the local government. Young, white and economically concerned, Rye and Gig are involved in the world’s rising industrial workers (IWW), a union founded by socialists and radicals.
When the Spokane free speech struggle of 1909 puts the brothers and hundreds of other men in jail, 16-year-old Rye becomes the focus of the struggle. It attracts the attention of famed union leader and feminist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, one of the few historical figures to populate and enliven Walter’s novel. Nineteen and pregnant, she travels the West causing trouble, telling the truth to power and scandalizing almost everyone she meets.
You and the IWW pose a threat to the city’s financiers, including the delightfully tacky, vicious Lem Brand. As a power broker with a stable of shady henchmen, he offers to help the jailed gig in exchange for Roggen’s loyalty. This is a tempting proposition – Rye isn’t as idealistic as his older brother, and he longs for stability after the death of his parents and other siblings left him alone except for Gig.
Originally from Spokane, Walter captures both the depth and breadth of this moment in his hometown’s history. “There was no place like this back then, Spokane – such hell and hair in this town.” “The Cold Millions” offers us the grand tour with an abundance of crimes, intrigues and adventures anchored by an unforgettable cast.
About half of the novel is told in the third person from Rye’s perspective, but Walter brings in a variety of first-person voices to bring the world to life – Gig and Gurley Flynn, as well as an escaping outlaw, a drunk killer and Ursula the great, a vaudeville singer performing in a cage with a mountain lion.
Rye and the rest of the poor and downtrodden – the eponymous cold millions – face income inequality, police brutality, and government corruption, problems that plague America for so long over a century later, despite the heroic efforts of so many. As Gurley Flynn Rye relates, nobody ever wins the war – “But to win a battle every now and then? What more do you want “
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