As he did with his international bestseller “Beautiful Ruins,” Jess Walter takes his time in laying out the elements of his latest novel, “The Cold Millions.”
But soon enough, the Spokane, Washington, author acquaints us with two Irish-American brothers — Gregory and his kid brother Ryan Dolan. Their family has dwindled down to just them. Their immigrant parents died — their dad of a pickled liver, their mom of consumption and their siblings to other ills common of the early 20th century.
With only a bare-bones education and no inheritance, the brothers ride the rails around the West, scavenging for work. In the fall of 1909, they’ve landed in Spokane, a city of sharp divides —with mansions up on Spokane’s posh South Hill and the have-nots down below.
It’s the end of harvest season, when the town is flooded with vagrants such as they — along with “stinking foreign rabble,” according to one cop charged with keeping the peace, and “tavern girls, opium and faro boys, mystics, seers, and pickpockets.”
Hoping to find work over the winter, the itinerants are confronted with scam employment agencies that charge workers just to be connected with a job lead. If the lead works out, the job invariably involves long hours, grueling work, dangerous conditions and crummy pay.
Gregory, in his mid-20s, has been doing this long enough to be fed up with the whole corrupt system, so he joins the Industrial Workers of the World.
Ryan, 16, is less convinced about the union’s efficacy, especially since the wealthy denizens of South Hill have bankrolled Pinkerton and several other detective agencies of varying quality to infiltrate, disrupt and smash agitators.
The brothers get caught up in this explosive melee.
Added to this mix are an earnest labor lawyer, an enigmatic drifter and two women who, in a pre-suffrage era when women had only limited access to power, have learned to maximize their charms and talents.
Ursula the Great is a popular chanteuse whose act involves performing with a live cougar — while offstage she is involved in an even more dangerous but potentially lucrative liaison with a mining tycoon.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is a pregnant 19-year-old who has become a firebrand for the workers’ cause.
For this compelling fictional narrative about class warfare from a century ago, Walter borrows from real-life historical figures who participated in Spokane’s tumultuous history.
“The Cold Millions” is about people who get shut out and left behind — and about others who make that so. Any reader who has driven through Portland, Seattle or Spokane recently and seen the homeless encampments there will realize that this story resonates today.
Ultimately, this ambitious plot has so many moving parts it’s impossible for the author to wrap things up without relying on a rather long epilogue. But Walter’s message about unassailable courage is one we might all take to heart.