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How Jess Walter went from Hollywood satirist to Steinbeck’s modern heir

Jess Walter's latest novel is "The Cold Millions."
(Rajah Bose)

On the Shelf

The Cold Millions

By Jess Walter
Harper: 352 pages, $29


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Growing up in Spokane, Wash., novelist Jess Walter read a lot of adventure stories and listened to a lot of family lore about his blue-collar roots. So perhaps it was inevitable that he’d wind up combining the two in his new novel, “The Cold Millions.

Walter’s grandfather arrived in Washington from the Dakotas in the 1930s. “He used to tell me how to hop a train, and he was telling me these stories at the same time I’m reading ‘Treasure Island,’” Walter says via Zoom from his home in Spokane. “Something about the two connected with me. For a working-class kid, there was a bit of romance about it.”

Walter, whose last novel was the acclaimed Hollywood satire “Beautiful Ruins,” funneled his interest in working-class adventures into “The Cold Millions,” a robust work of historical fiction. Though it’s set more than a century ago, the echoes of the present day are hard to miss: the cantilevered economy of a gilded age, a justice system that targets the poor, a polarized political mood, and a ravaged ecosystem where profiteers “killed the world and called it progress.”

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The story is set during the city’s free-speech riots of 1909 and 1910, as members of the Industrial Workers of the World (a.k.a. the Wobblies) clashed with police and lumber magnates who attempted to muzzle labor organizers by law or by force. It’s largely an intimate tale about two poor brothers, Rye and Gig, and their struggle to find their footing in a society that wants to jail, banish or kill them. But Walter also strives for historical accuracy: The defiantly feminist IWW organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn is central to the story.

The author also aspires to the sweep of an old-school proletarian novel. The title, for instance, is drawn from a passage that could’ve been ripped straight out of Steinbeck: “It was too much. All of it, too much, and Rye cried at the too-muchness of it. … All people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with no chance in this world.”

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Walter, 55, is well-versed in this kind of genre tinkering. A former newspaper reporter, he started out writing arch thrillers before turning to seriocomic literary fiction such as 2006’s “The Zero” and 2009’s “The Financial Lives of the Poets.” “Beautiful Ruins,” out in 2012, was a madcap, time- and style-shifting work, and its breakthrough success slowed progress on the follow-up. (“I may have taken a slightly longer victory lap with ‘Beautiful Ruins,’” he says.) But a historical novel about union organizing also presented particular challenges, which took time to sort out.

“There was an earlier draft that was really enthralled to [Flynn], because I did find her such a compelling figure,” he says. “But one of the problems with having more of Flynn in the novel, and one of the problems with writing proletarian fiction, is that the big thing they did was go around delivering speeches.” There may be a bit of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Flynn, but Walter felt that too much attention to the detailed arguments of the era would’ve hobbled the story: “The language of fighting over the 10-hour workday is not going to fire too many people up.”

Book jacket for "The Cold Millions" by Jess Walter
(Harper)

Though Walter grew up in a pro-labor household — his father was the longtime president of a steelworker’s union — the Wobblies’ experience in Spokane wasn’t part of his young consciousness. His first glimpse of the story came long before he started writing fiction at all. Back when he was a reporter at the local paper, the Spokesman-Review, he’d occasionally trawl through the archives. He learned that the city experienced an enormous population explosion in the early 1900s, which sparked serious tensions; Spokane’s police chief was assassinated in his home in 1911.

“I went for a bike ride [to the chief’s house] and there it was, totally unchanged,” Walter says. “I think you always want to write about the most interesting period in your history. And the Wobblies always struck me as youthful and idealistic, wanting to let everybody in whether you had a job or not.”

Walter’s research also unearthed a raucous vaudevillian streak in the Old West town, where men wrestled with horses before live audiences. That side of the city provided the inspiration for one of the novel’s love interests, Ursula the Great, who performed onstage with a live cougar, flinging meat from her bodice to keep it subdued.

Walter isn’t sure if Ursula was real or not: He recalls jotting down “Ursula the great dances in a cage with a live cougar” during one research session, but the notes he takes during archival visits are as likely to be imaginary as real. No matter: “What I tell myself is that I’m going to write a story that exists alongside what actually happened,” he says. “At one point I did feel like I had to lay off the entire research department of my novel-writing factory and just let fiction take over.”

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The verisimilitude he was shooting for, in true proletarian-novelist fashion, was thematic: social justice, income inequality, workers rights. In that regard, the terrain of Spokane was as rich as a Chicago stockyard or a central California migrant-labor camp. During our conversation, Walter holds a vintage postcard up to the camera, showing a bustling turn-of-the-century downtown Spokane. The goal, he says, was to capture that collectivity.

Though “The Cold Millions” is thematically about the masses, the ambition that Rye and Gig feel to improve their stations echoed Walter’s more specific family history. “My whole life, I watched the way unions have been demonized,” he says. “There was a middle class, not that I existed in but that I aspired to — we never drove a car that cost more than $2,000. I didn’t like the year we moved to a place we had to heat with a wood stove when I was a kid, because my dad got laid off from the aluminum plant.”

Early in the novel, Rye has a small epiphany while attending a union rally, awakening to the possibility — if not necessarily the likelihood — of political change: “It’s quite a thing when the world is upside down to hear someone say it don’t have to be,” he writes. “The Cold Millions” doesn’t romanticize what successes the Wobblies might have achieved in the face of lawyers, wealthy businessmen and assorted skullduggery. Walter says he strove to capture the persistence amid an atmosphere of precarity — an uncertain condition that gives the novel a truer echo of the present moment.

“Ryan asks Flynn late in the book, ‘How do you keep fighting when injustice seems to win?’” Walter says. “I almost felt like I was writing that for myself, asking young protesters walking out for climate change, or the Parkland High School kids. What makes them keep fighting, when there’s a part of me that wants to make a drink, turn on Netflix and call it a day?”

Sarah Smarsh, who sought to debunk myths about the white working class in “Heartland,” follows up with the Parton tribute “She Come by It Natural.”

Athitakis is a writer in Phoenix and author of “The New Midwest.”


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