Anyone looking for a fully immersive fictional experience to transport them out of a dismal locked-down start to the year and into another world will not be disappointed by the new novel from Jess Walter, author of the number one New York Times bestseller Beautiful Ruins. From the very first sentence of The Cold Millions, Walter plunges his readers neck-deep into the seething, riotous, kaleidoscopic underworld of 1909 Spokane, WA. A “full day’s ride from anywhere”, Spokane is “a boomtown that just kept booming, doubling in size every six years… the intersection of Frontier and Civilized, the final gasp of a thing before it turned into something else”. Unemployment is rife, the free speech riots are brewing and the town is filling up with itinerants, jobseekers and Union men fed up with paying job agencies in order to work a 12-hour day and preparing themselves to fight for the right to freedom of expression and a better life.
The novel follows two brothers, Gig and Rye, the children of Irish immigrants and the last surviving members of a family torn apart by the everyday tragedies of poor Americans at the turn of the century: a sister dead from childbirth at 16, a brother “drowned in a river of trees” while working in an Oregon timber camp, their mother succumbing to tuberculosis and their father to drink. The older brother Gig is a handsome idealist, “smart… about books, though less about work”, fired up by inequality and prone to whiskey binges whenever he can afford it. Rye wants a steady job and a home of his own and has “never been entirely sold” on his brother’s equality pitch: “It seemed awfully unlikely to Rye – like a beggar hungry for bread getting the whole bakery.” But it is not long before Rye finds himself swept up into his brother’s idealism, inadvertently taking part in Union action that ends in the violent arrest of hundreds of men and leads to an unlikely partnership between Rye and the notorious 19-year-old suffragette, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn.
Rye’s eyes are gradually opened to the Union cause as he travels through the surrounding towns in the company of the explosive Gurley Flynn, trying to recruit men and raise money for the Industrial Workers of the World. Gurley Flynn, one of several real- life historical figures to appear in Walter’s novel, is brought richly to life through Rye’s perception of her public speaking prowess: “she worked the space like a boxer, corner to corner, perched forward as though looking through a high window” and Walter’s provision of a detailed fictional backstory. Gurley Flynn’s “real-life” existence provides a reminder in amongst the rollicking good fun of this novel that the often-shocking events at its heart actually happened, and invites us to draw parallels with our own time when freedom of speech remains as divisive a subject as ever.
Although this is principally a novel about Rye and Gig and the contrasting trajectories that follow their initial arrests, their story is punctuated by chapters of first-person narrative in which a variety of colourful characters they encounter tell their own stories in a powerful tour-de-force of ventriloquism by the author.
From the heavy-drinking, bitter detective Del Dalveaux (by his own admission “ten years far side of prime”) to Ursula the Great, a vaudeville star whose trademark act involves feeding her discarded corsets to a mountain lion, each of these chapters provides a vivid snapshot of a man or woman striving to make their way by whatever means possible in an unsympathetic and rapidly industrialising America ravaged by inequality. Perhaps the only downside of these interludes is that they are so well drawn one almost regrets the return to the main narrative and is left longing for the humour and bathos of the first-person narrators found in these pages, wishing they could each have a whole book of their own. It is no coincidence that Walter’s last book was a collection of short stories.
As well as indulging his talent for ventriloquism, Walter clearly revels in his chosen setting. His prose pulsates with life as he describes the tenderloin district of Spokane in long sentences that flow across line after line capturing the melting pot of vice and humanity at the city’s heart. This is not a novel for the faint-hearted. Bloody violence is commonplace but there is great humour in it too, such that the overwhelming impression is one of hope rather than despair.
A book to get lost inside – after I had closed it, the London streetscape outside my window seemed rather dull compared to the throb of Walter’s cinematically rendered Spokane.