‘The Cold Millions’ celebrates forgotten heroes

Ron Charles

THE WASHINGTON POST – In 2012, Jess Walter’s breakout bestseller, Beautiful Ruins, brought movieland hilariously and brilliantly to life. The story offered an enchanting vision of glamorous old wrecks – from Tinseltown to an Italian village to Richard Burton himself.

But now, with his new novel, The Cold Millions, Walter attempts to bring that same verve to the pitiless realm of Spokane, Washington, in 1909. Where once he satirised the meretricious appeal of Hollywood, movie stars and reality TV, here he’s hunkered down with homeless workers, railway tramps and union organisers.

The result should be an earnest historical novel about the brutal struggle for fair wages, but through the alchemy of Walter’s voice, The Cold Millions is a work of irresistible characters, harrowing adventures and rip-roaring fun. In a country of amnesiacs that observes Labor Day with all the energy of a repressed yawn, this story is a rousing celebration of the forgotten heroes who devoted their lives and shed their blood to ensure the dignity of American work.

Walter structured The Cold Millions as a concoction of tales swirling around the violent repression of labourers in the early 20th Century. With Spokane doubling in size every six years, the city “felt like the intersection of Frontier and Civilised”, he wrote, “the final gasp of a thing before it turned into something else.” In this effervescent novel, he captured that transition in the experiences of people swept along by it. Freely mixing real and fictional characters in the tradition of EL Doctorow, Walter takes us back to a period of rising xenophobia, when moneyed interests whipped up alarm about “filthy foreigners”, godless socialists, union organisers and other boogeymen who still trouble the cashmere dreams of American capitalists.

At the centre of this thrilling battle are 16-year-old Rye Dolan and his older brother, Gig, two of the most likable characters you’ll ever meet. Orphaned and penniless, Rye and Gig are trudging along with thousands of other men – just a sliver of “the cold millions” – who are repeatedly lured into dangerous jobs, swindled out of their wages and then driven off by club-wielding thugs.

Walter presented Gig as a charming idealist so handsome he turns heads on the street. He may have no formal education, but he’s made the most of studying volumes one and three of War and Peace, and he knows with all his heart that “labour ought to share in the wealth it produces”. Fed up with a country in which “a rich handful lived in the clouds while the rest starved and slaved”, Gig has signed on with the Industrial Workers of the World – the Wobblies – a big-tent union that welcomes everybody. His younger brother, Rye, doesn’t feel the same enthusiasm for the cause, but he idolises Gig and follows him to a free speech rally that gets them both beaten and arrested. That misery quickly leads to even more hazardous ordeals.

The historical foundation of The Cold Millions offers a grim lesson in the endless struggle for better working conditions. A conspiracy of mine owners, unsympathetic judges and conservative newspaper editors fans the flames of anti-union paranoia. With labourers divided and on the run, anyone who makes trouble is fired, and anyone who doesn’t have a job is labelled a vagrant, vulnerable to incarceration in an over-packed, underground prison that’s more like a medieval dungeon. And wild as Spokane feels in 1909, Walter also takes us on side trips to wretched, lawless towns deep in the Northwestern forests that seem like places in the 16th Century.

Walter’s greatest real-life find among the forgotten annals of this era is a union firebrand named Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Gurley burns through these pages like an avenging angel. By the time she arrives in Spokane, she’s already what Walter called “a grizzled veteran of dozens of union actions”.

If the mine owners think they can smother the workers’ free speech protests in Spokane, they’ve got another thing coming. Fearless and indefatigable, Gurley shouts down policemen sent to arrest her and mocks judges set to sentence her. She’s a town-square rally and a newspaper staff compressed into a single body of implacable righteousness. But even Spokane’s union leaders aren’t sure they should allow a woman to speak in the streets. She instantly puts them in their place, “With all due respect,” she said with a laugh, “I have given speeches from Maine to Montana, and I have never once been allowed to speak.”

Rye is spellbound by this formidable young woman, and you will be, too. But Rye’s older brother, Gig, has his eye set on Ursula the Great, an artist who sings in a cage with a ravenous cougar. Yes, it’s that sort of novel, bursting 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”.

“Nothing here is as it seems,” Gurley warned, and she might as well be speaking directly to the reader.

In fact, it’s more of a spider’s web, and there’s no guarantee our young heroes will escape alive.

The only guarantee is that Walter’s new tragicomedy about this moment of American history is one of the most captivating novels of the year.