Grace Lichtenstein

In the last couple of years, the Western genre has been enriched by the appearance of protagonists beyond the John Wayne-type figure, such as the all-female band of desperados in Anna North’s Outlawed and the Chinese American sisters in C Pam Zhang’s How Much of These Hills Is Gold. A welcome addition to the evolving genre is The Thousand Crimes of Ming Tsu, a classically structured Western that’s tinged with the supernatural, starring a Chinese American assassin who roams as far as Utah to kill the men who broke up his marriage to a white woman.

On his journey of vengeance, Ming Tsu is accompanied by an ageless Chinese prophet who calls Ming “a man out of bounds”—someone who has managed to cheat death many times. Together they join a motley circus crew that tours from town to town along the transcontinental railroad line. The troupe includes a shape-shifting Pacific Islander, a ventriloquist who cannot hear or speak, two Mexican and Navajo stagehands, a mysterious white ringmaster and a white woman who falls in love with Ming.

Ming is a unique figure. He’s a murderer with a strange personal code who gains the loyalty of the circus folk but also earns the full ugliness of his enemies. As the son of Chinese immigrants, he helped to build the railroad, a familiar role for Chinese characters in early Westerns, but he’s also a score-settling outlaw worthy of True Grit.

The story’s supernatural elements never get in the way of the action, as first-time novelist Tom Lin displays remarkable skill in maneuvering his plot and characters so that readers continue to believe the tale even when it seems impossible, as when a cougar befriends Ming and shares its water and food with the man. This is a major work that enlarges our view of the Wild West and marks Lin as a writer to watch.

Following a Chinese American assassin in pursuit of revenge, Tom Lin’s debut is a welcome addition to the evolving Western genre.

Can a pair of 10-year-old boys actually build a raft by themselves with nothing but a knife and lumber from an abandoned shed? Can a city-raised, tenderhearted sheriff last three whole days in the wilderness? These are questions a reader may ask while reading Andrew J. Graff’s fine debut novel, Raft of Stars, which begins gently but builds to a thumping climax on a raging river, when all those questions get washed downstream.

The boys are Fish and Bread, significant nicknames indeed. In 1994, Fish spends summers on his grandfather’s farm in rural Claypot, Wisconsin, where his best friend is Bread, a local boy with a mean father. When Fish shoots Bread’s dad to protect his friend, the boys, fearing they are killers, light out for the north woods. In hot pursuit are Fish’s capable grandfather, Teddy; Cal, a burned-out sheriff from Houston, Texas; Tiffany, a purple-haired budding poet with a crush on Cal; and Fish’s Pentecostal mother, Miranda.

The colorful adult characters take supporting roles as the boys, a likable duo, plot their escape by way of the nearby river. On an island, they discover a shed in which poachers have conveniently left a tangle of strong rope, as well as cans of beans. Wet and tired, they manage to assemble a hardy log raft.

There is rough humor in the interactions between Teddy and Cal, a bumbler with no experience riding a horse who fears the woods surrounding the river. There’s fun, too, when Tiffany learns to pilot a canoe with help from denim-clad Miranda. As storms buffet the landscape, Graff crafts a tense adventure; the boys don’t know about the rocks that await them or the adults who are tracking them. Everyone must test their competence and their nerve against the inhospitable wilds.

With bears, waterfalls and more, the novel may be hard to believe at times, but that won’t stop readers from enjoying the boys’ battle with the elements. “Boys need to shake their manes,” Miranda says. Raft of Stars allows these capable kids to demonstrate their grit.

Andrew J. Graff’s fine debut novel begins gently but builds to a thumping climax on a raging river.

The fourth novel by Patricia Engel is a 21st-century odyssey about a Colombian family bifurcated by immigration rules. It’s an intriguing, compact tale, rife with both real-life implications and spiritual significance.

Escaping poverty in Colombia, the family initially arrived in the U.S. on tourist visas that later expired. They remained together until the father, Mauro, was briefly imprisoned and then deported. Unable to bring infant Talia to her minimum-wage jobs, mother Elena sent the child, the youngest of three, to live with Talia’s grandmother in Bogotá. 

The story opens as Talia, now a nervy 15-year-old, breaks out of a Catholic reform school where she was sent after an impulsive, violent act. One of the novel’s multiple storylines follows Talia as she hitches rides back to Bogotá, where Mauro waits with a plane ticket to the United States, offering the possibility of a long-delayed family reunion.

Another major storyline follows Elena, who tries to make a life for herself in New Jersey with her two older children. She is mistreated by one employer in a restaurant and disrespected by another. She finally lands a job with a wealthy family, taking care of a son who forms a stronger bond with Elena than with his own mother.

Infinite Country joins a growing category of fiction about the U.S. and its attitude toward Latinx immigrants, and Engel stands out as an especially gifted storyteller who elevates this saga through the use of Andean folk tales. She also heightens our interest by shifting the novel’s perspective to Talia’s sister in New Jersey more than midway through the book, and her voice adds a new dimension to the tale.

Engel does a marvelous job of rendering these characters as individuals, each with a unique story. Mauro’s journey is illuminated by his visits to the sacred Lake Guatavita outside Bogotá, where gods of wisdom reside, and where the birds above the lake mirror the family’s mantra: “We are all migrants here on earth.”

The fourth novel by Patricia Engel is an intriguing, compact tale, rife with both real-life implications and spiritual significance.

Milk Fed will make you hungry. I began reading it at breakfast, and before I knew it, I had consumed an entire box of Chocolate Cheerios. It’s about food and Jews and sex—an irresistible combo meal. With hints of Jami Attenberg’s mishpucha and spiced with Jennifer Weiner’s chutzpah, it is graphic, tender and poetic. Melissa Broder’s approach is perfectly sautéed lesbianism, a rom-com that turns serious.

Rachel is an assistant at a Los Angeles talent management firm who is disordered about food. She considers a clove cigarette and a cup of diet hot chocolate a meal. But beyond her restrictive relationship with food, she also has an unresolved appetite for sex and love. Not coincidentally, she meets her love interest at the counter of her favorite frozen yogurt shop, Yo!Good.

Miriam, the Yo!Good server, is an Orthodox Jew, a “zaftig girl” who “surpassed plump, eclipsed heavy.” Their romance begins with the seduction of a frozen yogurt hot fudge sundae, sprints past Sabbath dinner and then slow-dances into kisses, third base and noisy orgasms. To Rachel, Miriam is either a golem or a gift. Being a “Chanel bag Jew” rather than a “Torah Jew,” Rachel accepts the gift, and while she once admitted that “God isn’t, like, texting me Hi or anything,” she learns to appreciate God as well. “I’m down with it,” she says.

Rom-coms are never without their complications, and as Rachel begins to consume obsessively, her actions are not without fallout. Deep down, Rachel longs not to love but to be loved, a consequence of issues with her withholding mother. “Why did it feel so much safer to be wanted or needed than to be the one who wanted or needed?” Rachel says.

For those who enjoyed Broder’s The Pisces, much of Milk Fed will be welcome in its familiarity. But this is an even better book that’s enhanced by its Jewishness, its ripeness, its dreams.

For those who enjoyed Melissa Broder’s The Pisces, much of Milk Fed will be welcome in its familiarity. But this is an even better book that’s enhanced by its Jewishness, its ripeness, its dreams.

Jess Walter may not be the first writer to come out of Spokane, Washington, but he has certainly put it on the literary map. In his latest novel, The Cold Millions, the bestselling author draws readers into a tale set just after the turn of the 20th century, as modernity and labor strife collide in the mining, agricultural and railroad hub of Spokane. It stars two young brothers, “tramps” named Rye and Gig, but real historical figures such as activist Elizabeth Gurley Flynn also make appearances.

You have some strong personal connections to this story, being from Spokane but also with your family history, your grandfather’s experiences as a rancher and your father’s role as a union officer. Tell us something about the inspiration for the story and how you developed it—not just the setting, but also Ursula and the villain, Brand.
I used to be ashamed of my working-class roots, but my family and hometown inform much of what I do. The Cold Millions is about two hobos just after the turn of the 20th century; a generation later, both my grandfathers were vagrant workers. My dad’s dad, my namesake Jess Walter, arrived in Spokane on a train he’d hopped in the Dakotas. My dad was a steelworker and a union guy, and labor equality was as close to a religion as we had.

I often start with divergent goals for a book and then try to connect them. Here, the impulse was to tell a story about social justice and youthful activism and pair it with a rollicking adventure story, part Western and part noir. The thrill is often in finding characters you never imagined in your original conception of the book, like Ursula the Great. You’re doing research, bent over 110-year-old newspapers, when you notice the ads for vaudeville shows, and next thing you know, this salty woman is taking over, singing to a wild cougar.

“Put me in Paris, and I’d probably write about meth addicts trying to pawn a stolen bidet.”

It’s been eight years since your previous novel, Beautiful Ruins, was published. Can you give us some insight into the creation of the two novels? How was the process different?
It always takes a while to realize that nothing I wrote before can help with this book. Eventually, familiar patterns and themes emerge, but early on, every novel feels like a first novel. The Cold Millions required more research than most of my books, so I spent months reading old newspapers and tracking down obscure books, articles and academic papers. Finally, at some point, I had to fire the whole research department (me) and rely more heavily on the fiction unit (also me). I guess if anything carried over from Beautiful Ruins, it was my interest in a more expansive kind of storytelling, in not being limited to a single point of view.

The Cold MillionsSpokane has become your Yoknapatawpha County. How do your fellow residents feel about being spotlighted in your books?
I love Faulkner’s invented settings, as I love Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Macondo or Louise Erdrich’s Argus, but my fictional setting is also a real one, more like William Kennedy’s Albany or Elena Ferrante’s Naples (in an aspirational way). I loved how John Steinbeck wrote about Monterey with such heart (“Cannery row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise . . .”). And because I also venture out in my writing—to Italy, to Hollywood, to New York—writing about Spokane always feels like coming home.

What do my fellow Spokanites think? Most are appreciative, I think. I do hear from some who wish I wouldn’t focus so much on crime and poverty, that I maybe I might set a story on Spokane’s swanky South Hill for once, perhaps at the Manito Country Club. But I’ve never lived there. I’ve always lived in the flats just above the river. Although it might not matter anyway. Put me in Paris, and I’d probably write about meth addicts trying to pawn a stolen bidet.

You’ve described this book as “the last Western.” How is that so?
Yikes, did I say that? Such self-importance! I should’ve included the word gasp, as in last-gasp Western, because the period I’m writing about—1909, cars sharing the roads with horses, a certain frontier lawlessness around the edges—marks the end of this mythic Western period. But with the class divisions, the blatant unfairness, the social unrest, I also felt like I was writing about now. Maybe what I meant was this was my last Western (my only Western). I used to demean that whole genre as “horse porn.” But all I seem to do as a writer is break my own aesthetic rules and reverse every formerly unshakable opinion that has ever escaped my mouth.

You’ve now published crime novels, a 9/11 phantasmagoria, a Hollywood love story and now a historical novel. What impels you to try new genres?
A phantasmagoria! I don’t really think of genre when I’m writing. The story I’m telling just proceeds from the voice and the characters I create. I hope a wry wistfulness connects them all, a sense of jaded, bemused compassion. I do take pride in not repeating myself creatively. But that’s more to avoid boredom than to honor some artistic pledge I’ve made. I just try to write the next book I want to read, and since I read across genres, it’s always made sense to write across them, too.

I noticed the name “Tursi” (a character in Beautiful Ruins) popped up in The Cold Millions. Is that a nod to your fans? To your characters?
It’s probably more a nod to my characters. I imagine a distant great-uncle of Pasquale’s making his way to the United States and settling in Spokane’s Little Italy (where my wife was raised, and where I worked my first job as a dishwasher and busboy at Geno’s Fabulous Pizza). In The Cold Millions, Rye makes the observation that the world is “becoming one place,” and I kind of imagine my fictional world that way, too, as one place, full of coincidence and serendipity.

“If it’s true you cannot have racial justice without economic justice, then the opposite must surely follow.”

Aside from the research you did, did you read at all for pleasure when writing the book?
Of course! I read Wolf Hall for the first time and thought it was terrific. I went on a glorious Alice Munro bender and then reread James Baldwin. I read Denis Johnson’s great The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, and because he mentioned Leonard Gardner’s Fat City in an interview, I read that, too. Olga Togarczuk’s Flights, Sarah Broom’s The Yellow House and Percival Everett’s Telephone haunted and illuminated. Oh, and poets: Christopher Howell’s The Grief of a Happy Life, Jericho Brown’s The Tradition and Dorianne Laux’s Only as the Day Is Long.

I understand you are a younger brother. Did your relationship with your older brother influence your portrait of Gig and Rye? If there is a movie, who would play them?
Actually, I’m a classic middle child, with an older sister, Kristie, who is a county library director, and a younger brother, Ralph, who is a newspaper sports editor. I’m close with both of my siblings, and my brother is probably my best friend. Ralph and I share the gravitational mix of camaraderie and responsibility that Gig and Rye feel for one another, but little else of our relationship appears in The Cold Millions. A novel about my brother and me would be only six pages long, and four of those pages would be dialogue lifted directly from Caddyshack, with the rest being boozy smack-talk about who is the better basketball player. (I am.)

As for movies, I have never been able to “cast” my books—my sense of Hollywood is stuck in about 1974 (and I don’t think Steve McQueen is available). But in a movie about my brother and me, I would be played by George Clooney, and he would be played by a potted plant.

Is any of the socialist, revolutionary spirit still alive in Spokane?
Sure. The city of Spokane, like most urban areas, is reliably blue now (about 60% for Hillary Clinton in 2016), but the city is surrounded by the reddish counties of eastern Washington and lies within the larger, liberal Pacific Northwest. There are veins of individualism on both the left and the right here that come together in places like barters fairs and survivalist expos—a kind of leave-us-the-hell-alone libertarianism. There are also thriving anti-fascist groups, and the Wobblies are still around, having been revived by the Seattle WTO protests of 1999. Like everywhere, I think the real revolutionary spirit right now lies in the protests sparked by Black Lives Matter. As it should be. If it’s true you cannot have racial justice without economic justice, then the opposite must surely follow.

What’s next for you?
Creatively, a book of short stories, which I’m pulling together now. And I’m having fun working on the next novel. And later today I’ll play my brother in a social distance basketball game (we shoot at opposite ends of a full court) that I am certain to win.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of The Cold Millions.

Author photo by Rajah Bose

Jess Walter may not be the first writer to come out of Spokane, Washington, but he has certainly put it on the literary map. In his latest novel, The Cold Millions, the bestselling author draws readers into a tale set just after the turn of the 20th century in the mining, agricultural and railroad hub of Spokane.

Jess Walter’s first novel in eight years arrives with the weight of high expectations. His last, Beautiful Ruins, was a surprising and well-deserved bestseller. His previous fiction—including crime novels, a 9/11 tale and short stories—were rapturously reviewed.

In The Cold Millions, Walter tries another mixed genre, the Western historical novel, and shows he is a master at investigating the “hobo” world of 1909. The star of the book is Spokane, Washington, a “boomtown that just kept booming.” It is here, amid skid row poverty and mansions of wealth, that 19-year-old rabble rouser Elizabeth Gurley Flynn intersects with two orphaned young men, Rye and Gig, who are the protagonists of the story.

The book is uneven, however, and falls short of the romanticism of Beautiful Ruins. There is fine detail on dark anarchy and dank jail cells, but unlike Walter’s funny version of Richard Burton in Ruins, Flynn is so focused (one might say didactic) as to be wooden. Her leadership of the dismal class struggle becomes repetitive. Rye and Gig are callow, and even though Gig is a book lover and Rye a striver, they don’t fully inhabit their space. Readers may be far more interested in the villain, a robber baron named Brand, and a smart circus performer named Ursula the Great. When these two are cavorting, The Cold Millions shines.

Walter has devised some fantastic set pieces, including a riot that leads to a dreadful scene of jail overcrowding. The freedom of the road, the lawlessness of the police, the spectacle of a few cynical power figures making life miserable for the huddled masses—it’s all enlivened by Walter’s vivid writing. A reader can feel the rails rattling under the trains that thunder through the mountains. A new life, the 20th century, is roaring into being. As Rye thinks to himself, “History is like a parade.” 

Forget the book’s shortcomings; it’s good to have Jess Walter back.

 

ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Jess Walter offers a closer look at The Cold Millions, his “last-gasp Western.”

In The Cold Millions, Walter tries another mixed genre, the Western historical novel, and shows he is a master at investigating the “hobo” world of 1909.

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