The Cold Millions
- By Jess Walter
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Mark Gamin
- December 4, 2021
This extraordinary story of an early 1900s class struggle cements the author’s place among America’s finest writers.
It was odd, exceedingly odd as an historical matter, to see television coverage this past summer of protesters in Seattle and Portland, their faces inches away from a line of policemen, screaming the vilest of epithets at them — with the cops entirely stoic, unmoving, not reacting in any way.
At similar civil protests in our history, there was liberal use of billy clubs and worse after far less provocation. This was certainly true of the labor-union protests, also in the Pacific Northwest, during the early part of the 20th century, the setting for Jess Walter’s new novel, The Cold Millions.
Back then, the “Wobblies,” members of the Industrial Workers of the World — the hoped-for “One Big Union” — planning a rally for free speech were told by the local police chief (in the author’s words), “You do this and you will pay in bone and teeth.”
In Walter’s version, as in reality, they often did.
In terms of quantity, quality, and variety, Walter has produced an impressive body of work. The Cold Millions is his seventh novel. He has written murder mysteries that, as they say, transcend the genre; a couple of quirky but fine first-decade-of-the-21st-century set pieces (The Zero, a DeLillo-esque take on 9/11, and The Financial Lives of the Poets); and one exquisite masterpiece, Beautiful Ruins.
As different as the feel of each book is, they are all set in — or touch on — Spokane. It’s the author’s home and a place for which he obviously has a visceral fondness, like William Kennedy for Albany or Thomas McGuane for Montana. Much of Walter’s scene-setting consists of loving descriptions of the city’s geography, streets, and downtown, both the unruly side and the posh.
“Such hell and hair on that town,” says The Cold Millions’ omniscient narrator. Spokane “felt like the intersection of Frontier and Civilized” in the early 20th century, “a city named for the people driven from it.”
The time is 1909, and free-speech riots are happening. The Wobblies want the right to organize mine workers; the mines’ owners want to silence them. Brothers Gig and Rye Dolan are young hobos with sympathies guided by the mostly idealistic, mostly nonviolent Wobbly ethos. The omnipresent temptation to violate those two precepts makes up much of the tug and drama of the story.
When the police and their allies, the Pinkerton detectives, are quick to resort to brutality and bloodshed, when double-crossers and informers are easily bought, and when the cause seems hopeless, well, then, some of the Wobblies will resort to explosives and mayhem.
Discouragement comes easily when the working class fights the capitalists. “We were flies buzzing around the heads of millionaires,” Gig thinks to himself, “fooling ourselves that we had power because they couldn’t possibly swat us all.”
Most of the characters in The Cold Millions are made up. This is, Walter writes in an afterword, “a fictionalized story [set] among real historical figures and events.” The female lead, however, is an avatar of the real-life Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. In Walter’s version, as in reality, she was known nationally, and not unsympathetically, as the “Rebel Girl,” and by the New York Times, very much unsympathetically, as the “she-dog of anarchy.” Nineteen years old and pregnant, Flynn traveled the country rabble-rousing for the IWW at a time when it was mildly scandalous for a female with child even to be seen in public.
Some of the dialogue is heavy on vernacular not found in Webster’s or any other dictionary: “rustle boxer,” “batty-fanged,” “jangle girls.” But Walter uses the slang ably, in such a context that the reader understands its meaning despite the unfamiliarity. It’s high praise for any writer to be mentioned in the same sentence with McGuane and, in that spirit, one might say Walter’s use of lingo is as good as McGuane’s in the short story “Cowboy.”
Nearly all the characters here get what they have coming, more or less, except the ones who escape through guile or death. Between Gig and Rye, one lives to tell the end of the tale, circa 1964, at age 72. The other goes out with a bang.
The novel’s title comes from Rye’s rueful thought, while sitting in the wealthy villain’s sumptuous library, that he’s about to be bought as an informer for $20. He thinks about his sister and mother and Gig, all suffering or dead, as being one with all humanity, except the rich:
“Living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with no chance in the world.”
The foregoing paragraph gives away an early plot detail but nothing more. It won’t spoil your enjoyment of this marvelous story by an author now ensconced, rightfully, in the highest rank of American novelists.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2020.]
Mark Gamin is a lawyer, writer, and editor. He is writing a novel set in central Idaho, the working title of which is The Middle of Idaho. Physically resident in Cleveland, in his mind, Mark is often at his small farm in Appalachian Ohio, on the very edge of civilization.