Archive for the ‘Jess Walter’ Tag

Timeless Battles   Leave a comment

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I believe most fiction is tied to facts. Yes, The Cold Millions by Jess Walter is a novel. Still, its back drop is a fictionalized account of the timeless struggle of poor against rich, power versus powerless. It’s also about brotherly love, sacrifice and a desire for a better life when efforts are repeatedly thwarted.

Early 20th century Spokane, Wash., is inhabited by mining magnates, prostitutes, corrupt police and vaudeville performers.  There’s also a small group of unionists and socialists struggling for better pay and free speech. Gig Dolan is part of the latter group and his 16-year-old brother, Rye, is less committed to the cause. Both are devoted to each other.

In addition to the lively descriptions, not only of Spokane, but Seattle and several squalid mining communities, Walter’s characters are vibrant. They include tramps, murderers and suffragists. The faces of many are covered with dust as if their existence is diminished by a lack of opportunities. Gig, an idealist, once dreamt of being on the stage; Rye wants only a place to call home. Partly due to age, he’s uncertain about the causes Gig champions. Nonetheless, he gets caught in the fray when riots instigated by the police break out.

Initially naïve, Rye’s transformation comes about not only because of his love for Gig, but through his own experience of being exploited, and his understanding of what it means when others put their lives at risk.

The era and location represent another time, but the struggle is ongoing.

The Cold Millions

Four Bookmarks

Harper, 2020

343 pages

Poetic Justice   Leave a comment

Finacial Lives

Jess Walter takes satire to a new level in The Financial Lives of Poets, a look at marriage, social media, unemployment and breaking the law. Matt Prior is an unemployed financial journalist and a would-be poet. His senile father lives with Matt, his wife and their two young boys. Matt is convinced his wife is having an affair. When he isn’t busy writing poems about the direction of his life, he stalks his wife’s online activities.

Walter instills humor and pathos in his characters. In fact, these elements are so evenly balanced it’s difficult to choose a preference. It’s funny that Matt meets two young hoods late at night at a 7-Eleven; it’s pathetic when he continues the relationship. It’s amusing when Matt comes up with an idea to save his home from foreclosure; but it’s sad to realize the extent of his debt and desperation.

The novel’s title comes from another of Matt’s bad ideas, although this one is completely legal: a website with financial news written in blank verse. Matt left his job at the local paper to pursue this not surprisingly unsuccessful venture. It’s not that the poetry is weak, only that, for better or worse, poetry simply doesn’t appeal to everyone; and as it turns out, particularly not financial types.

The Financial Lives is suggestive of a Breaking Bad Lite. The motivation for making ill-conceived choices is understandable, even if it cannot be condoned. The farther Matt sinks, the less intriguing the story. It wears thin.

The Financial Lives of Poets
Three Bookmarks
HarperCollins, 2009
290 pages

A Technicolor Love Story   4 comments

Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins is a cinematic novel. It’s easy to imagine this story playing on the silver screen. It spans years and continents, relies heavily on the relationship between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, and features a strong connection to the movie industry. At its core, this is a love story, and a beautiful one at that.

Jess Walter’s tale involves a young actress, Dee, who arrives in an isolated Italian fishing village on the Ligurian Sea, where she meets Pasquale the owner of the Adequate View Hotel. Dee has been sent from Rome, where she had a bit part in the filming of Cleopatra. Dee is also pregnant with Burton’s child. Although it may sound like a blurb from People magazine, Walter imbues his narrative with deep feelings, humor, interesting characters and a clear passion for romance.

However, just when it seems the story will settle in the fishing village (the most interesting place) or even Los Angeles (because of the Hollywood scene), several miscellaneous locales are introduced: Seattle, London, Spokane, Florence, even Donner Pass in Northern California. Walter includes an assortment of characters, none of whom, surprisingly, are superfluous. Added, to this mix are different time periods: the early 1960s, the 1800s, and something more contemporary. The myriad of people, places and eras at first seems disparate, but they actually are essential what makes this such an engaging work.

Ruins are most often associated with architecture. Here Walter incorporates them into the erosion, but not extinction, of human emotions.

Beautiful Ruins
Four Bookmarks
Harper, 2012
337 pages