Several years ago, when I read the 2012 novel Beautiful Ruins, I recall setting the book down and promising myself that I would read anything and everything Jess Walter ever wrote. The man can spin a tale better than almost any novelist alive today—and his newest work, The Cold Millions, does not disappoint.
Set in Spokane, Washington, in the early 1900s, the novel follows orphaned brothers Gig and Ryan Dolan, who wake up on a baseball field surrounded by other down-and-out vagrants. Gig dreams of a better world and ends up fighting on behalf of the International Workers of the World—the “Wobblies,” they’re called—a union advocating for fair pay and decent treatment for the working class. Their adventure weaves around an unforgettable cast of characters, including a fearless suffragist, a powerful mining boss, an aging private eye and a vaudeville singer named Ursula the Great.
Walter freely mixes real and fictional characters in a story packed with vivid scenes and breathtaking plot twists. And the writing? Wow. When 17-year-old Ryan gets an unexpected glimpse of the mining boss’ mansion—servants in every corner, its library stacked floor to ceiling with leather-bound volumes—“The unfairness hit Rye not like sweet brandy but like a side ache,” Walter writes, “a physical pain from the warmth of that heated floor and the softness of that chair. ... But now he knew, and he would know the next time he was curled up on a cold boxcar, that men lived like this.”
The Cold Millions is a timeless story of haves and have-nots, set against the backdrop of an early-20th-century America that eerily reflects our modern era. It’s a story of sacrifice, betrayal, hope and brotherhood, and it’s easily one of the finest novels I’ve read this year.