Politics Is in Its DNA: On Jess Walter’s ‘The Cold Millions’

August 17, 2020 | 5 books mentioned 5 min read

A cold city square fills with protesters. Armed police approach from all sides, penning them in, and a standoff ensues. Voices, signs, fists are raised. “We are here to stand against injustice,” shouts one man, only to be silenced by the swing of a stick. Within minutes, the peaceful show of solidarity has become a full-scale riot. Protestors run, fall, are trampled, shackled, and hauled away. A holding tank fills beyond capacity; gaunt faces are stained with blood. No one is read their rights. They fall ill, starve, some die. The youngest is only 16, and he’s not even a member of the union that staged the protest. His name is Rye Dolan. He was only there to support his older brother, Gig, as proud a union man as there ever was. Now both are guests of a corrupt, malevolent system. Their crime? Sedition: speaking out against the established order.

Though this scene could have been torn from today’s headlines, the protest occurred 111 years ago. It ignites the drama at the heart of The Cold Millions, Jess Walter’s first novel since his runaway 2012 bestseller Beautiful Ruins.

It’s mid-June, and, like everyone else, Walter is home, social distancing. We are speaking via Zoom. He’s backed by the harsh afternoon light of two windows on the top floor of a 1909 river rock carriage house at the back of his property in his hometown of Spokane, Wash.

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Writing Beautiful Ruins, Walter explains, made him realize that the stories he likes to tell are themselves composed of stories and contain a multitude of characters and forms. He’s come to question the I narrator. “When I’m reading a first-person novel, sometimes I hear the voice of social media leaking in,” he says. “Somebody on their Facebook page or Twitter feed. I want a larger world than that.”

That larger world is on full display in Walter’s new novel. Even its title evokes a multitude, referring to a subset of desperate souls that Emma Lazarus, in her 1883 poem “The New Colossus,” called “huddled masses.” Though The Cold Millions spans 100 years, it takes place mostly in one: 1909, when the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, formally began their fight for free speech in Spokane.

At the novel’s core lie two brothers who couldn’t be more different: Gig is idealistic; Rye is uncertain. Gig provokes; Rye mediates. Gig is content in rags; Rye spends six months’ salary on a suit. Gig enjoys the affection of local vaudeville legend Ursula the Great; Rye could pass 100 women with nary a notice.

The story turns first when Rye reluctantly joins that protest only to find himself pulled into a battle he doesn’t care much about. Because of his age at the time of his arrest, he becomes a cause for labor. He’s given a lawyer and released, while Gig, incarcerated indefinitely, begins a hunger strike. The story turns again when Rye becomes a pawn in the fight, manipulated by both sides. In labor’s corner stands real-life progressive firebrand Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a 19-year-old Irish beauty who uses Rye, and his sob story, to fire up her base. In industry’s corner stands fictional Lem Brand, who owns much of Spokane and thinks he can own Rye too.

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Walter was born in Spokane in 1965. At the age of five, playing in an empty lot with a friend, he was blinded in his left eye. (He says he’s “possibly the greatest 54-year-old one-eyed point guard still playing.”) He says he grew up embracing adventure tales like Treasure Island and dreamed of “stowing away on a train, stowing away on a pirate ship.” But at the tender age of 19, he set sail on a different adventure: “I was a dad living in government housing trying to not drop out of college, looking into factory jobs,” he recalls. “If I hadn’t gotten subsidized housing, I don’t know that I would have finished college and been a writer. It doesn’t take much to derail you. I think we underestimate how many people are in that situation. My car breaks down, I’ve gotta call my brother, get a ride, go rent a car. Someone else’s car breaks down, their life falls apart.”

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Walter was lucky. He got through college and found a journalism job at his hometown paper, the Spokesman-Review. His reporting on the Ruby Ridge standoff (a violent days-long confrontation between white separatists and the FBI) led to a Pulitzer nomination, and his first book, 1995’s Every Knee Shall Bow: The Truth and Tragedy of Ruby Ridge and the Randy Weaver Family.

When asked if he sees his new novel as a battle cry, Walter says, “Being a former journalist, I discovered early on that fiction is a terrible way to break news. I think it’s also a hard way to practice politics. What fiction can do is more important than that: it’s such a shot of empathy. I don’t think of it as a cause novel.”

Maybe not, but The Cold Millions has politics in its DNA. It raises questions about power’s corrupting influence, about the sides people take and fortify with rhetoric, and about brotherhood, both genetic and thematic. The book is intimate enough to tell a moving story about Rye and Gig, and expansive enough to tell other stories too—about labor, class, inequality, privilege, corruption, and migration. But above all, The Cold Millions is about Spokane.

“Writers should have to write a book about the most interesting period of time in their city’s history,” Walter says. He raises a postcard he found when he began his research, showing downtown streets teeming with people as work horses wait with equine patience at the roadside. “This is a normal day in Spokane in 1910,” he notes. “Spokane was income inequality as a sort of social experiment. The wealth of these mining and timber families was unbelievable. The mayor couldn’t afford to live on the hill. It connects with where we are now. Anyone who’s been watching income inequality over the last decade knows that we are at the highest point since the Gilded Age.”

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From the publication of Walter’s first novel, Over Tumbled Graves, in 2001 to that of Beautiful Ruins, no more than three years elapsed between books. When asked about the eight-year gap after Beautiful Ruins, Walter says that book “took a lot out of me, creatively.” Then his beard bends with a grin. “And I may have taken a slightly longer victory lap than usual.” He pilots his laptop around the room in his carriage house for a tour. “This is the house Beautiful Ruins renovated,” he says, pointing out his writing desk, his other desk, his Nerf basketball hoop (crucial to the creative process, he says), his “napping couch” and his “napping chair.”

Walter takes us downstairs and out into the overblown day. The back of his main house lies ahead, flanked by homes built, like most of Spokane, in 1909 or 1910, when union men like Rye and Gig were being imprisoned for modest demands that threatened the immodest profits of the industry titans up the hill. He enters his house at the back, crosses to the front, and points his camera out a window at the river valley, stretching as far as the eye can see.

“I wrote once about Spokane that it doesn’t matter where you live, you’re never more than two blocks from a bad neighborhood,” Walter says. “I kind of love that about my hometown. I still live in the flats, I still live next to the river I lived next to when I got a stick in my eye. I feel so connected to the person that I was, and maybe more comfortable than ever being that person and writing class stories that are about meth addicts stealing televisions, not about which private school you send your kid to.”

Bonus Link:
A Year in Reading: Jess Walter

This piece was produced in partnership with Publishers Weekly.

Mike Harvkey is the author of ‘In the Course of Human Events’ and was the researcher/reporter for the bestselling true crime book ‘All-American Murder.’

is the author of In the Course of Human Events and was the researcher/reporter for the bestselling true crime book All-American Murder.

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