The Cold Millions


Jess Walter




Date Reviewed:

January 15, 2022

saw The Cold Millions on the "new in paperback" shelf in the library, and all of the glowing hype on the back cover convinced me to give it a try, though I had never read any of Jess Walter's previous books. "A work of irresistible characters, harrowing adventures, and rip-roaring fun ... One of the most captivating novels of the year" - Washington Post. The Cold Millions is an enjoyable story, and the characters are irresistible. Walter seems to enjoy filling the reader in on the full story of most of his characters, spending on each a chapter to present their backstory, even for minor characters such as Jules or acting Police Chief Sullivan. These character chapters are interesting. I think I will look for more novels by Walter, to see if I like them as well. Citizen Vince seems to be well regarded, it won an Edgar Award. I should try that one next.

The Cold Millions is set in Spokane in the year 1910. It is a time of great inequality; a few wealthy millionaires control the resources and industries, while legions of desperate men compete for jobs that pay only paltry wages (and sometimes those wages are not paid at all). Crooked job shops force the men to pay a dollar each to be considered for a job, but then the work only lasts a few weeks. The early efforts at unionization are met with violence by the police and thugs hired by the wealthy industrialists. The story seems to be based upon actual events, many of the characters (though not all) are created by Walter, but the basic plot seems to follow from historical data of the International Workers of the World (or maybe Walter made that all up also and it just seemed to be authenticate.

In the prologue, the Spokane police are investigating a report that a vagrant has been seen lurking near the homes of the wealthy. That is unacceptable; a couple of detectives are sent to investigate. Someone comes out of the darkness and sticks a knife into one of the policemen, a married man named Waterbury. But why would someone want to murder Waterbury?

Ryan "Rye" Dolan is a 16 year old ("almost seventeen!") orphan who came west to find his brother after his parents died and left him all alone. Ryan's brother, Gregory "Gig" Dolan, is still a young man himself, tall and strong and powerfully built. But neither Gig nor Rye can get work, despite riding the trains around the country looking for honest wages for honest work. The two brothers are sleeping in a baseball field in Spokane along with hundreds of other men who have come looking for work, when the sleeping man are attacked by the Spokane Police. These brutal police and a militia of thugs have decided to "move along" the riff-raff, and so attack all the sleeping men with batons. Rye and Gig flee, along with two companions that they had met - Jules and Early Reston. The four of them run, but find themselves boxed in by the river. A violence-loving cop named Clegg smiles at the trapped men, but Early Reston surprises everyone by calmly snatching a baton out of the hand of a surprised policeman, and then clubs Clegg in the head with it. This allows the four men to escape, but Clegg wants revenge.

The boys meet Ursula the Great, a vaudeville star who does a strip tease in front of a large audience. She then enters a cage with live cougar, yet manages to escape unharmed each time she performs the act. Ursula seems smitten with Gig, but her act has caught the eye of one of the wealthiest men in Spokane, Lem Brand.

Despite being tramps, Gig and Ryan are literate and educated; Gig carries with him War and Peace (volumes I and III). When Gig hears talk of union formation and justice for men, he is inspired to join the cause, and Rye finds himself caught up in the wake. A Free Speech day comes to pass, and though the police and their thugs are there to suppress it, the IWW leaders stand up on a soapbox and make their speeches until assaulted and dragged away by the police. And so Gig and Rye find themselves crammed into prison along with hundreds of other men fighting for fair pay and fair work.

Although the high praise directed at The Cold Millions will make any sensible reader wary of it being a tedious book filled with boring literary prose, I found that The Cold Millions had plenty of action - the Gilded Age was not a time of law and order. Besides his masterful depiction of the characters, Jess Walter does a great job describing Spokane at the beginning of the 20th century. The poverty, the injustice, the indifference of the wealthy to the multitudes of their poor fellow citizens - all of this comes alive in the novel. Young Rye gets out of prison first, and ends up in the orbit of a fiery female speaker named Elizabeth Gurley (whom I think is a genuine historical person). Gurley is fearless and provocative, speaking out for justice and organizing the men. Obviously, wealthy Lem Brand, the manipulative millionaire, cannot let Gurley succeed in organizing a union, and so he employs some sordid characters...

Rye ends up reading War and Peace while he waits for Gig. It makes me wonder if I should read Tolstoy's masterpiece as well, but every time I pick it up, it just looks so intimidatingly thick! I should look for Citizen Vince instead.