Jess Walter’s New Novel Revisits a Turbulent Era Much Like Our Own

By Jess Walter

Jess Walter has fashioned his eighth novel, “The Cold Millions,” out of the free speech riots that erupted in Spokane, Wash., in the early years of the 20th century. The Industrial Workers of the World had attempted to break a system of kickbacks between corrupt employment agencies, which fleeced laborers with bad job leads, and the crew bosses who took a portion of the proceeds to hire and fire workers in an unconscionable churn. Eventually, rowdy Wobblies packed the streets, and 400 people were beaten and jailed in the ensuing conflict.

Walter dramatizes the melee and its aftermath with a lively cast of characters both invented and real. His novel’s main focus, a fictional pair of first-generation Irish brothers named Rye and Gig Dolan, intermingle with historical figures like the “rebel girl” Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a communist firebrand and founding member of the A.C.L.U.

Having escaped a bad start in Montana, the Dolans arrive in Spokane looking for steady work and a better life. Those are Rye Dolan’s hopes, anyway, while Gig, the older and more charismatic of the two, inclines toward showgirls and the vices on offer in the city’s tenderloin district. Enlightened by the likes of Nietzsche and Rousseau, Gig is in possession of just enough learning to be dangerous. He is eager to fight back against the bosses who cheat him, the corrupt cops who enable them and the capitalists and company men who regulate every aspect of his vagrancy. The differences between the brothers is established early on, when they wake on a ball field among fellow tramps and exchange ideas for how to spend the day:

“Hey, Gig, let’s see if that doorman at the Empire will pay us two bits to carry his trash to the river.”

“You go on, Rye-boy,” Gig replies, patting himself for a smoke that fails to materialize. “I’m going to the hall today.”

That is, to the riots. Rye is reluctant to join him. Having witnessed too much poverty and death in his young life, he’s driven less by idealism than by the need to eat. He is a pacifist and a skeptic. Yet he isn’t devoid of the romantic impulse. “Rye had an insight that felt like a reverie,” Walter writes, “that, man or woman, Catholic or Prod, Chinese, Irish or African, Finn or Indian, rich or poor or poor or poor, the world is built to eat you alive, but before you go down the gullet, the bastards can’t stop you from looking around.”

Loose, lyrical passages like this one celebrate the democratic ideal, at present so degraded and very evidently on Walter’s mind. Both brothers attend the free speech event: Gig as a devoted socialist, Rye as a devoted brother. Both are arrested. But one is still a boy, and when Rye’s age is discovered, Gurley Flynn secures his release and turns Rye into a prop in the socialist struggle. He just as quickly becomes the pawn of anarchists and hired goons, too.

The plot follows: Will Gig get out of jail? Will Rye sell his soul to guarantee it? Who will die?

Walter has made a major career out of the minor character, and his portrait of Rye is not unlike that of his B-list lovers in “Beautiful Ruins,” or the poet-father drug dealer in “The Financial Lives of the Poets,” who is generously brought to life with humanity and wit. Walter’s latest novel is more hybrid beast than those earlier books: not quite fiction and not history but a splicing of the two, so that the invented rises to the occasion of the real and the real guides and determines the fate of the invented. He makes this explicit on his acknowledgments page: “What happens to the historical figures in the novel is generally what happened to them in life.”

I found this a fascinating stipulation: If a bit of burlesque creeps in around the edges of Walter’s showgirls, tramps and ardent idealists, as perhaps it should, very real violence and the tidal pull of history keep the book tethered. So do injustice, poverty, bigotry, ecological disaster. Turns out this tramp’s tale is a timely book, and its timeliness suggests an ethos: There is no place here for lofty speculation or counterfactuals, time machines or talking dogs.

There is instead a fealty to fact and to strict cause-and-effect, with an abiding preference for the historically plausible over the fictionally possible in both plot and characterization. Which isn’t to say the book lacks brio or invention; it is full of both. But there’s also a strong invitation, as Rye navigates his way through conspiracies and bloodshed, to link the historical events of his time to the present day, and to ask what Walter means to say about capital-H history by inventing one of its walk-on characters.

Defying his own romantic prediction, Rye is not eaten alive by the world. When the book’s coda arrives, the year is 1964, and he’s the last man standing from that revolutionary time. Only he’s not standing: He’s sitting at home watching the Freedom Riders on television. As in 1909, skeptical, self-preserving Rye has politics on his mind but not on his agenda. Activism and idealism, Walter suggests, consume you or get you killed, and history is no arrow or arc pointing upward, but a cycle of repeating patterns. Rather than taking part, Rye found solace, and salvation, in a day job.

“Rye loved being a workaday guy,” Walter writes affectionately, and we sense that this determined son of immigrants will survive history’s conflagrations for old-fashioned reasons: rectitude, fidelity, sacrifice. Altogether it’s a tender portrait of a fine man. But it’s impossible not to notice that neutrality is a key feature of his survival. Rye stays alive by keeping his head down, leaving others to war over the world. At the end of his life, he has grandkids and a pension after working 50 years as a union machinist. He has lived out his humble portion of the American dream.

These late developments in the novel put me in mind of words attributed to Chief Seattle in an address he gave to the newly elected governor of the Washington Territory, which would have included Spokane. “Regret is useless,” a subdued chief concluded, speaking of the fate of the Native American in 1854. Then he added a premonition, or perhaps a curse. “Your time of decay may be distant, but it will surely come, for even the White Man whose God walked and talked with him as friend with friend, cannot be exempt from the common destiny.”

These days, the machinist is a relic and the pension is dead. The world is on fire and so are the streets. By formally tying 1909 to 1964, Walter asks us to connect the dots in his schema to the present day, during another eruption in history’s cycle. Only this time, the common destiny Chief Seattle warned about appears to have arrived. At first blush a loving tribute to Wobblies and tramps, “The Cold Millions” ends as a eulogy for a certain kind of man: white, fair-minded, nonideological, inclined toward the sidelines. Had Walter inserted a time machine into his book after all, and flown Rye to the current year, it’s hard to imagine even someone so innately neutral looking on passively as history comes for him, too.

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