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'The Cold Millions' Takes On The Dented Dream Of American Social Mobility


This is FRESH AIR. Jess Walter's 2012 novel "Beautiful Ruins" was a best-seller set in Italy and late-Golden Age Hollywood. His other novels have ranged from political satire to literary suspense. Walter's new book, "The Cold Millions," is something else entirely - a sweeping historical novel about the Wobblies and a landmark free speech protest at the turn of the last century. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Mention the Wobblies to most Americans today, and they'll likely think you're referring to tremors. The Industrial Workers of the World, or IWW, as the Wobblies are more commonly known, were founded in 1905 as one big union to cut across all trades and industries. The Wobblies have had some notable organizing wins in recent years, but such an expansive union remains a utopian dream. America, I feel sentimental about the Wobblies, declared Allen Ginsberg in his incantatory poem "America," written in 1956.

Jess Walter, like Allen Ginsberg, also feels sentimental about the Wobblies. His new novel, "The Cold Millions," takes place in Spokane, Wash., in 1909 and 1910 and centers on the real-life free speech demonstrations that erupted in that city, pitting police and government officials against transient workers, many of whom identified as Wobblies.

Spokane had instituted a ban on public speaking in response to the orations of Wobbly organizers who were trying to break the grip of corrupt employment agencies in the city. The demonstrations drew some famous participants, among them, the charismatic teenaged Wobbly orator Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, whom the country would come to know as the Rebel Girl. She and more than 500 protesters were jailed before the city revoked the ban, making Spokane an early triumph in the long history of free speech battles in the U.S.

"The Cold Millions" is a novel that's been incubating in Jess Walter's imagination for years, predating his 2012 bestseller, "The Beautiful Ruins." That novel, set in an Italian fishing village, was an exquisite appeal to escapism whereas "The Cold Millions" is politically engaged. Consider the stark difference in setting alone. Spokane in 1909 attracts not a sprinkling of rich American tourists but a flotilla of men looking for work. Here's the Whitmanesque catalogue that opens "The Cold Millions."

(Reading) They woke on a ballfield - bums, tramps, hobos, stiffs - two dozen of them spread out on blankets in a narrow floodplain. Seasonal work over, they floated in from mines and farms and log camps, filled every flop and boardinghouse, slept in parks and alleys. And on the night just past, this abandoned ballfield, its infield littered with itinerants, vagrants, floaters, Americans.

These are the men that don't fit in, to quote the popular Robert Service poem from the same period, or more accurately, the men who can't fit in because the system is rigged against them. "The Cold Millions" magnifies the social criticism that fueled some of Walter's earlier novels, in particular the prescient 2005 novel "Citizen Vince" about an ex-felon frantically trying to cast his vote in the presidential election of 1980. Here, Walter takes individual frustrations with the dented dream of American social mobility and renders them collective.

"The Cold Millions" traces the adventures of two vagabond brothers, Ryan, or "Rye," Dolan, age 16, and Gregory, "Gig," who's 23. Rye and Gig are among that mass of sleepers on that ballfield or hobo nest. Gig is a handsome, hard-drinking autodidact reading Jack London and random volumes of "War And Peace." Rye is a shy, romantic, the quintessential innocent destined to be wised up. When Gig, who's already joined the Wobblies, gets knocked off his soapbox at a demonstration, Rye steps up and takes his place before he, too, gets a kick to the gut. The brothers, along with hundreds of other protesters, are jailed. But because of Rye's youth and because his voice and story have attracted the notice of none other than Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, he sprung from prison while poor Gig honors his commitment to a prison hunger strike. Flynn is one of a bunch of actual historical characters who populate this novel. The plot-heavy structure suggests something else Walter is sentimental about here, namely the traditional historical novel. The lefty political bent and hybrid cast of real and made-up characters in "The Cold Millions" is reminiscent of the work of John Dos Passos and E.L. Doctorow. But Walter's style owes even more to midcult yarns by Kenneth Roberts, Herman Wouk and Howard Fast, tellers of big stories about the forgotten foot soldiers of the past in novels like "Northwest Passage" and "Spartacus."

It's quite a thing when the world is upside down to hear someone say it don't have to be. That's the opening epiphany Rye has after listening to labor men talk. Allen Ginsberg, towards the end of "America," expressed the same moment of hope and possibility differently. It occurs to me, said Ginsberg, that I am America.

DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Cold Millions" by Jess Walter. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview with Chef Marcus Samuelsson, winner of multiple James Beard Awards, whose new book is part recipes and partly an appreciation of Black contributions to American food, or our interview with New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos about Joe Biden's life and political career, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF RANDY NEWMAN'S "RAGTIME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.