That’s what former journalist Jess Walter did a few pages into his latest novel, “The Cold Millions.” His story is set in Spokane, Washington, in the early 1900s, as the divide between rich and poor grows more and more stark: Timber barons, railroad magnates, and the like live in grand, new homes on one side of a wild and winding river, while the workers and scrabblers — many of them immigrants — huddle in small cottages or hobo shacks on the other. Unrest is growing to a fever pitch as the Wobblies, or International Workers of the World, launches a union organizing effort that pits boss against worker, brother against brother.
Walter follows two orphaned brothers into the fray. The older, Gig, is a reckless charmer who is zealous about the union movement; the younger, Rye, is more cautious, desperate to hold onto his last shred of family but always questioning the cost of rash action and the reality of the union’s high-minded ideals. Not far into the book, Gig tries to get Rye to see the vision. “It’s about equality,” Gig says. “It’s about the worker owning the means of production.”
Rye keeps his thoughts to himself but is skeptical. And here comes the slight turn-of-phrase Walter uses to take a known adage and give it new power:
Hell, it took only your first day in a Montana flop or standing over your mother’s unmarked grave to know that equal was the one thing all men were not.
“The Cold Millions” was released to widespread accolades for its historical accuracy (Walter’s background as a journalist is evident in his keen-eyed descriptions of Spokane, where he lives, and his weave of historic figures and events throughout the novel) and the echoes it holds to current times. Then and now, the nation and world were by political and economic divides, and radical movements rose up in response.
But as a piece of writing, it also is his masterful play with words that I delight in, taken page after page with an adjective or phrase I never would have thought of, but that is perfect in pitch and originality.