A cop gets shot. Then, during an unrelated protest for free speech, police beat the shit out of people, arrest them indiscriminately. Spokane writer Jess Walter’s new book, The Cold Millions, which comes out on October 27, is not set this year. (But you can find eerie echoes everywhere.) Rather, his first novel since 2012's Beautiful Ruins throws us into labor battles in 1909 Spokane, when the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) faced off with a corrupt police force.
The heart of the book lies with the Dolan brothers, Rye and Gig, amiable drifters who get arrested during that free speech rally and subsequently swept up in a plot that seems closer to a Raymond Chandler novel than War and Peace (a book the Dolans treasure). We get a scheming mining tycoon, a golden-voiced vaudeville performer who strips in front of a cougar on stage, a couple of mercenary hit men, and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn—the labor organizer and suffragist, who’d go on to help found the ACLU and chair the Communist Party. But in 1909, she shows up in Spokane, 19 and pregnant, to fight for the union. Rye, only 17 and unsure about this revolution business, gets a crush on her.
Throughout, Walter examines benevolence and greed, filial love, the psychology of poverty, and the nuances of collective action—its morality and, ultimately, mortality. Death lurks everywhere, rearing up in foreground and background. But even if haunted, this is still an entertainment. Walter is a writer of big range and big charm—logos, ethos, pathos, humor. There’s plenty of political talk, but it’s the sort in which characters call Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Discourse on Inequality “basically the Wobbly pitch after a bath and a glass of port.”
Like Beautiful Ruins, this is ambitious storytelling, leaping through time (back to 1864, up to 1964), flipping through narrators, trying to contain a whole world. Sometimes that gets the better of it. The long, teeming sentences can turn to needless lists, detailing old-time Spokane. Rye, the everyman main character, is also one of the least interesting, especially alongside Flynn’s soapbox charisma. And some of the murderous plot machinery feels lifted from a lesser book. But on its terms—of page-turning historical sweep and grand compassion—the novel easily succeeds.