Jess Walter, it seems to us, is a writer who likes to confound expectation. If you’d asked me, roundabout Citizen Vince, what kind of a writer Jess Walter was – I would have said a crime writer, with maybe a slight hint of Jonathan Lethem. By the time of The Financial Lives of the Poets, I would have shifted my view and maybe wondered if Walter wasn’t the heir apparent to a writer like J Robert Lennon (if you liked Lennon’s Mailman, you’d love Walter’s Financial Lives of the Poets). Next came Beautiful Ruins, which was the first book that felt like Walter’s own, in that it didn’t remind me of anyone other than Walter (although it does, now, seem to have foreshadowed Jonathan Coe’s Mr Wilder and Me, with its shadow of Fedora). This was followed by We Live in Water, a terrific book of short stories, before finally we get to his latest, The Cold Millions, a historical novel set in Spokane (Walter’s hometown and the setting for many of his books) in 1909.
The Cold Millions is, in some ways, as different to Walter’s previous books as could be expected. If you want a shorthand – politically, we’re in Steinbeck Grapes of Wrath country; in terms of the quality of the writing, think Anthony Doer All The Light We Cannot See. This is a world of union men and corrupt bosses, a world of strikes and actions, a world in which the media is used to turn the affections of the public away from men who are just looking to earn a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. There are two brothers, Gig (short for Gregory) and his brother Rye, travelling the tracks from place to place and doing what they can to get by (although Gig is himself something of a firebrand, involving himself in the political toing and froing and participating where he can). A protest of sorts sees Gig imprisoned and Rye caught up in the wider wheels of the twin factions – boss Lem Brand, showgirl Ursula the Great, labour organiser Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (the latter a real-life personage, as many characters from The Cold Millions are). Flynn takes Rye on the road to tell his story (of being an orphan beat up by the police at the age of 16) even as Brand hires rough and ready sorts to put paid to them.
If all of this makes you think, hey, there seems to be a particular resonance between what Walter is writing about and now then bing-bing-bing, gold star for you:
“this skirmish… was part of a larger battle fought in a thousand places between rich and poor, between forces and sides he wasn’t sure he understood…”
Later, after court cases and bombs and cars careening off cliffs and dark shadowy figures up to anarchy and no good, Rye thinks,
“history was like a parade. When you were inside it, nothing else mattered. You could hardly believe the noise – the marching and juggling and playing of horns. But most people were not in the parade. They experienced it from the sidewalk, from the street, watched it pass, and when it was on to the next place, they had nothing to do but go back to their quiet lives.”
The Cold Millions is one of those novels that quietly hooks you, that has you caring about the characters (particularly Rye) before you even quite realise it. It’s not a showy novel (and so there’s a little danger it could slip beneath the old radar, despite engaging with some very lively contemporary debates vis-a-vis equality and corruption). But it is yet one more example of what a talented writer Walter is, pushing himself to do better each time, pushing himself to work harder and amplify his statement. The Cold Millions feels like a book that works hard to say what it wants to say and works hard to just, you know, entertain the reader. On both those counts, it succeeds.
Any Cop?: Although we’ve not read everything by Walter (yet), we’d go so far as to say that we think this might be the best book by him we’ve read so far.