The Cold Millions

The Cold Millions by Jess Walter

When young Rye Dolan finds himself inside the private library of the mining kingpin Lem Brand, he’s initially impressed by the twenty-foot-high bookcases and the onyx fireplace – but then he is ‘flushed with sadness’. Every injustice and tragedy that has touched him in his nearly 17 years of living comes back to him, and he grieves for ‘All people, except this rich cream, living and scraping and fighting and dying, and for what, nothing, the cold millions with no chance in this world.’ Such is the gulf between America’s rich and poor in 1910.

It’s moment that cements Rye’s solidarity with the working class, even as he becomes implicated in a conspiracy to weed out certain firebrands and crush the movement for workers’ rights altogether. Rye has already been involved in labour rioting in Spokane, Washington, but mostly just tagging along with his older brother Gig, an idealist who, when he’s not joining protests or carousing in the city’s tenderloin, has his nose in War and Peace (although he only owns volumes 1 and 3).

The one who sharpens Rye’s politics and pulls him into a wider world is not Gig or Tolstoy, but Elizabeth Gurley Flynn – a real historical figure amongst Jess Walter’s great cast of invented characters. Flynn, 19 years old and pregnant but already a veteran when we meet her, was an important activist who focused the labour movement and got vilified by the anti-union press as the ‘she-dog of anarchy’. Walter’s other characters could pale in comparison to the notorious, charismatic Flynn, but he musters some marvellous creations. These include Del Devereux, a murderous, over-the-hill private detective whose every utterance is beyond hard-boiled, but who somehow skirts all the usual clichés.

Walter sustains a balance of finely-plotted fiction and illuminating history throughout. Taft, a lawless boomtown on the mountainous Montana-Idaho border, is a fascinating footnote in the story of the American frontier, and Walter doesn’t need to exaggerate anything to make it so. What happens to Rye and Flynn there, somewhere in the middle of the novel, is surely pure fiction, but it fits perfectly.

One of my favourite new novels in some time, The Cold Millions an earnest celebration of a fierce fight for dignity made over a century ago, but compelling, unusual thriller too.

Starve Acre

Starve Acre by Andrew Michael Hurley

In the aftermath of their son’s death, Richard and Juliette are rattling around their lonely house on the edge of moorland, spiralling in their grief. He busies himself researching the barren field of Starve Acre where a gallows tree, the Stythwaite Oak, once stood. Her reaction is more spiritual — early on, she summons a local group of occultists called the Beacons, prompting Richard’s disdain.

Hurley’s rural Yorkshire scenery is full of wild beauty, but it also thrums with old violence and fresh menace. He is in his element with this type of folk horror. Some early passages involving the gradual reanimation of a hare’s unearthed skeleton, as it sprouts organs, sinews, skin and fur, risked being ludicrous, but I found them fantastically visceral and creepy.

I only wish that the couple’s strained relationships with the villagers had been explored further, and that the conclusion had been stronger. Many well-turned phrases and macabre images from Starve Acre will stick with me, but I’m not sure the ending will.

I picked this up after enjoying an interview with Hurley in an issue of Weird Walk (I enthused about this fantastic zine here) and would certainly read him again.

A Thousand Moons

A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry

This sequel to Days Without End should work fine as a standalone novel, but it’s surely enhanced by intimate knowledge of that earlier, more action-packed book — of Thomas McNulty’s many adventures criss-crossing the fractious America of the mid-19th century. Along the way he, with his brother-in-arms and lover John Cole, adopted an orphaned Lakota girl, and A Thousand Moons is her story – its title taken from her people’s phrase for a long period of time.

Winona’s words have plenty of the effortless poetry that characterised Days Without End, but they also contain a deep pain that her adoptive father could never experience nor fully understand. When she is raped, the circumstances bewildering and hazy in her memory, her status in the evolving, ever-flawed America becomes painfully clear — she doesn’t even qualify as a person of 1870s Tennessee. We are used to heroes in our Westerns being on the wrong side of the law, but rarely in this cruel sense.

Winona’s quest for vengeance (as well as the retrieval of a treasured rifle stolen from a freed slave) reveals further cracks in the peace of the post-war South, where lynchings still occur and bandits run riot, bending the few good men to their will. She discovers ‘that strange sense of aftermath that follows disaster which has always its own promise of disaster renewed bubbling through it’.

Balanced against the inhumane ugliness, there’s companionship and familial love in the scenes on Lige Magan’s tobacco farm, and the first flush of romance once Winona encounters another Native orphan, Peg. It’s another outstanding, powerfully empathic novel from Barry.

Days Without End

Days Without End by Sebastian Barry

Thomas McNulty, a refugee of the Irish famine in mid-19th century America, chances upon fellow orphan John Cole, and they stumble into a life together. They become the unlikely entertainment for miners in a Daggsville saloon. But once their boyish looks begin to fade, they’re soldiers, swept up in an atrocious campaign against America’s native tribes. One thing leads another, not least the American Civil War.

But the bitter struggle against ‘Johnny Reb’ is mostly background to the human story that propels everything. A surprising development from the early chapters is that McNulty and Cole adopt an orphaned Sioux girl, whom they name Winona because her real name is too tricky to pronounce. The soul of the novel lies with this tentative family of orphans, trying to survive in a shattered, confused America that must nonetheless be their home, their land.

McNulty’s rambling narration, looking back on these heady days, pulls you right in. He omits, forgets, leaps back and forth within his own history, but he tells a cracking good tale – a grand, gruelling adventure threaded finely through the chaos of war. He pauses to offer folksy but powerful philosophies. He lingers on fantastic descriptions of the natural world he has encountered, from the thick, ancient redwoods of California, to the fractured creeks of Tennessee. In between there’s a damp spring in Massachusetts and a brutal winter stuck inside an infamous Georgia POW camp. All of this travel and trouble comes wrapped in a breezy Irish-American-Yankee vernacular. McNulty’s facility for capturing all kinds of beauty, violence, tenderness and terror within that idiom never seems a stretch.

It’s as if we have pulled up a bar stool next to one of the great storytellers. The night is drawing on, but we hardly notice, as the unlikely, thrilling tales keep on coming, as well as the darker moments, wracked by trauma, as this man comes to terms with the things he has seen and done.

“There didn’t seem to be anything alive, including ourselves. We were dislocated, we were not there, now we were ghosts.” 

In the Country of Last Things

In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster

“Life as we know it has ended, and yet no one is able to grasp what has taken its place.”

The unnamed, isolated city state where Anna Blume searches in vain for her missing brother is extreme in its desolation, its daily hardship, its moral rot, its cruel bureaucracy, even in its nature, with a brutal, historically ‘Terrible Winter’ to make the urban nightmare even less survivable. The subcultures that spring up in this doomed world, including comically bizarre death cults, precisely different disciplines of scavenging, and a resourceful criminal underbelly, are briefly sketched, but enough to build a horrific overall impression and a gripping backdrop to Anna’s tale.

This sort of dystopian near-future setting makes this novel in one way an outlier in Paul Auster’s work, but otherwise it has so many of his hallmarks — a protagonist on an obsessive, all-consuming personal quest, a fluid, absorbing narrative marked by sudden changes of fortune, and memorable oddball characters encountered along the way.

Perhaps it’s not quite toppled the mighty Moon Palace as my absolute favourite Auster novel, but it’s up there.

Invisible Cities

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino – translated by William Weaver

“Elsewhere is a negative mirror. The traveler recognizes the little that is his, discovering the much he has not had and will never have.”

I’ve been nudged in the direction of Invisible Cities numerous times over the years, but it took a friend posting a copy to me before I got around to reading it at long last.

In the palace grounds of the Great Kublai Khan, puffing on a long amber pipe, swaying in a hammock, Marco Polo describes to his host many of the most obscure and curious corners of the ruler’s vast, unmanageable empire. Most of the places are summed up in less than a page, with just space for a splendid scenic tableau (often a traveller’s intoxicated first impression) before theres a sharp, strange turn in the telling. A report might read as a thought experiment, a satire, a gentle parable, a mind-bending paradox — most could be very different things to different people.

Certain images and ideas will fix themselves in the memory especially strongly. For me these included Leonia, so fixated on the brand-new that ‘the street cleaners are welcomed like angels’ and it exists at the centre of an enormous crater of its own expunged rubbish — a pristine city hemmed in by a chain of compressed garbage-mountains that grow by the day. Then there’s Thekla, perpetually under construction out of fear of ruin. Eusapia, with its enormous subterranean necropolis, a somewhat idealised version of the living city above, curated by a mysterious group of hooded brothers, is one of the creepiest vignettes.

Each far-flung metropolis is differently striking, and Calvino never lets Marco Polo linger too long on one and risk breaking the spell. The concentrated imagination poured into each page is inspiring.

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold

How Much Of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang

C Pam Zhang’s debut is a Chinese immigrant story that spans the California Gold Rush, centred on two very different siblings. Its early chapters follow the orphans Sam and Lucy on their quest to give their father’s body a proper burial. Just as this plot gathers pace, the novel darts sharply back in time, filling in their parents’ backstories, and soon we have a complete sense of the downtrodden family.

Sam takes after their father, with a volatile temper, a lust for gold, and a connection to the hills that once held so much of it – even if prospecting now means a lot of drudgery and disappointment. Lucy grasps that land, wealth and privilege will always be denied to their kind, so she’s drawn west across the Pacific, to the misty green hills and red-walled cities her Ma describes so vividly. She also feels the lure of a more civilised America over to the East, with its paved roads, neat shops and changing seasons.

Dates are presented as XX62, XX59 and so on, and very little geography is named – Zhang shrugging off specificity, giving herself space to reshape the myth of the American West. Hers is a frontier where immense buffalo and ferocious tigers once roamed, where rituals have tremendous power. This ‘unwritten history’ seems to rear up into the present when the characters move into the wild, wide-open landscapes.

While I gather some of Zhang’s other inventions are problematic, writers have always taken all kinds of liberties with the Wild West. My frustration with this novel really lies with its try-hard style. There are beautiful sentences, but so much the writing is self-consciously lyrical, and muddles the sense what’s actually unfolding. Coupled with that fussy structure, it feels like this otherwise straightforward tale has been overworked.

Rabbit is Rich

Rabbit is Rich by John Updike

“That’s why we love disaster…it puts us back in touch with guilt and sends us crawling back to God.”

Although it has this thought crossing Harry ‘Rabbit’ Angstrom’s mind, the third novel in the saga doesn’t really deal in disaster. Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux both built toward cataclysms that will forever haunt the characters – but in Rabbit is Rich, John Updike spares them anything of the sort. Perhaps he is aware that another cruel twist of fate would seem ridiculously far-fetched. Perhaps he also thinks they deserve this providence.

Rabbit is certainly grateful, now 46 and running what was once his father-in-law’s Toyota dealership. Advancing age and disposable income have made him less jittery, and more smug. Where he once sought to explode the family unit, now he wants to sustain and control it. He’s all about securing his wealth, ingratiating himself with some new country club pals, and bossing around his errant, surly son Nelson (now of college age).

After the tacked-on late 60s backdrop in Rabbit Redux, the action of Rabbit is Rich is much more tightly wound around its setting, with constant reference to the 1979 Oil Shock. Fretting over too much money in the bank, Rabbit first invests in South African gold coins, then swaps it all for antique silver dollars. It’s a slight return to those youthful jitters and a plot thread that allows for some bizarre comic set pieces. Another echo of the dithering twenty-something Rabbit is his theory that he may have a grown-up daughter, conceived amongst the inglorious events of Rabbit, Run. His nagging desire to find out for sure stems from that book’s great disaster, the loss of his second child.

If we warm to Rabbit at all, it’s perhaps only because he’s more respectful toward his wife Janice than in previous books, and just marginally less obnoxious than the company he keeps. His new status has only emboldened an ugly conservatism that was always there in him. Readers are liable to snort when he berates his son, “How did you get so prejudiced? Not from me.” Updike wrote in a 1995 introduction to the tetralogy, “Readers who expect novelists to reward and punish and satirise their characters from a superior standpoint will be disappointed.” Yet again, he pushes Rabbit quite far – the unpalatable inner monologues still spill forth without a hint of authorial opprobrium. I admire that, but it’s easy to see why these novels are not especially fashionable in 2021.

400+ pages in the company of the Angstroms is kind of exhausting, but it’s hard to say what Updike could have cut. Late on in this indulgent opus, Rabbit stares up at a Caribbean night sky and waits a while for a shooting star, until ‘there it is…vivid and brief as a scratched match, a falling star, doused in the ocean of ink’. That’s something like the feeling of reading Updike – he’ll test your patience, but he is sure to dazzle or surprise you sooner or later.

Mort

Mort by Terry Pratchett

Mort was the first Discworld novel to focus on Death (previously limited to scene-stealing walk-on parts), and arguably the first one to have a proper plot. Death, for reasons never quite explained, recruits an apprentice named Mort, a gawky, gangly teenager from the Ramtops. Mort is soon upgraded from stable-cleaning to soul-reaping duties, but he bungles one of his early jobs, thwarting the fated assassination of a princess and thereby causing a schism in reality.

It’s clear Pratchett takes delight in this opportunity to flesh out (for want of a more appropriate term) Death. As the skeletal harvester of souls enjoys some downtime, we learn of his passion for cats, his bemused regard for human customs, and his confected, monochrome Domain. Death’s otherworldly presence is captured wonderfully from the very beginning – his hand ‘smooth and rather yellowed like an old billiard ball’, his cough ‘like the pistol-crack of an ancient beam full of death-watch beetle’. Pratchett can send a shiver down the spine, then immediately undercut it with a wisecrack as dry as a bone, or a (literal) pratfall.

It’s an odd experience re-reading a Discworld novel after more than 20 years – the movement of the story feels nearly new, but particular scenes and jokes are startlingly familiar, as if the better part of them had been lodged in the back of my mind all this time. Among these old favourites were a footnote about monarchy travelling faster than light, and the section where Mort visits a pub and samples the corrosive drink ‘scumble’. There’s also plenty of stuff that must have flown way over my head during my first read.

French Exit

French Exit by Patrick DeWitt

After his comic Western The Sisters Brothers, and his Alpine Gothic fable Undermajordomo Minor, Patrick DeWitt brings his addictively arch style to a novel that’s less precisely located in genre, but owes something to screwball comedies.

Frances Price is the widow of an absolute rotter, a lawyer who made his enormous fortune representing the most repugnant clients – ‘the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries, the apparatus of the war machine, gun lobbyists’. She’s since been frittering away his cash. As French Exit begins, she learns it’s almost all gone. She and her adult son Malcolm will have to vacate their luxurious Manhattan home and take up a friend’s kind offer of an apartment in Paris. Across the Atlantic and into this uncertain future, they must also drag Small Frank, an elderly cat who contains the frustrated soul of Frances’ dead husband.

Malcolm is a little passive and dull-witted compared to Frances, who is ready with a shocking remark, a withering put-down or a wild non-sequitur whenever bored of the conversation. The dialogue between mother and son is always fun, and always dancing around deep shadows of unspoken resentment and remorse. More sparks fly as they travel to Paris and collect hangers-on – including a fortune teller, a needy, overly talkative fellow ex-pat, and an out-of-his-depth private detective.

French Exit is less pacy than DeWitt’s last two novels, but no less charming. It has strong characters and a sharp sting in the tail, making for a memorable book that continues his hot streak.

I thought Jacques Audiard’s 2018 film of The Sisters Brothers was great, and rather overlooked at the time, but French Exit seems perhaps trickier to adapt, and the imminent film version doesn’t really appeal.