Rye falls in with the suffragette Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a young communist firebrand who scandalises and intrigues polite Washington society. A real historical figure, she is an irresistible, eloquent troublemaker here. This tale of unions, bosses, communists, the downtrodden and the dark side of the American dream could be an earnest bore, but Walter’s version is colourful and punchy.
These descriptive passages are marvellous, but they can be a bit much. Still, this materiality lays bare the divide between rich and poor better than Gig and Gurley’s diatribes. Rye, in a millionaire’s library of unread books, thinks of how his brother only has volumes 1 and 3 of War and Peace, and “the unfairness hit Rye not like sweet brandy but like a side ache”. The novel dwells grandly on the powerlessness of the poor, but it’s in these moments that Walter’s “cold millions” get a human face.
Millionaires and hobos, anarchists and cops, saloon girls and entertainers people the pages of a novel that focuses on the coming-of-age story of Rye Dolan, a teenager thrust into the maelstrom of street politics in Spokane, Washington, after he joins a demonstration that is violently broken up by police. Rye experiences prison brutality, travels to political meetings with a flamboyant feminist agitator and is recruited to spy for a ruthless businessman, as he learns that the world is far more complicated than he imagined.
Walter has given himself an ambitious task, not least in knitting together an origin story for his city from fragments and inventions. But the most joyful storytelling hits you in the form of first person accounts that are inserted into the main narrative. Ursula the Great, an actress “fallen low in the theatre,” is the most vivid. Compelled to take a job singing in her undies in a cage with a live cougar, she must sew raw offal into her corset and then throw it to the animal — in time to avoid a mauling.