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.