Irresistible hobo brothers, an evil tycoon, a pregnant union organizer, a burlesque star, and a shady private eye light up a tale of the great Northwest in the early 20th century.
The fact that the same author has written books as wildly different and all as transporting as The Zero (2006), The Financial Lives of the Poets (2009), Beautiful Ruins (2012), and now this latest tour de force is testimony to Walter’s protean storytelling power and astounding ability to set a scene, any scene. Here it’s Spokane, his hometown, circa 1909. Orphaned Montana brothers Gig and Rye Dolan, 23 and 16, have wound up there along with so many others—“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 ball field, its infield littered with itinerants, vagrants, floaters, Americans.” The violent adventure that befalls Rye and Gig the next morning becomes the centerpiece of a story that Rye ends up reciting onstage when he goes on the road with 19-year-old Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, a suffragette and union organizer and one of several real-life characters in the book. The free speech riots the Dolan brothers get involved in and end up incarcerated for are taken from history as well. At intervals, chapters are narrated by first-person characters both major and minor, several of whom die on the page midsentence, a literally breathtaking fictional flourish. Two favorite voices are Ursula the Great, the vaudeville performer Gig falls in love with, and Del Dalveaux, a detective in the employ of Ursula’s patron. Noted for her singing and her way with a live cougar, Ursula displays food-writing talent as well: “We were served a French red wine, a fine local beefsteak, scallops from Seattle, and gnocchi that might have been pinched from the ass of an Italian angel.” Dalveaux is a hard-boiled piece of work: “Spokane gave me the morbs. Right blood blister of a town. Six-month millionaires and skunk hobos, and none in between….The city was twice the size of the last time I’d hated being there.”
We have heard that Jess Walter writes nonstop: Seven days a week, 365 days a year. Please, never stop.
Pub Date: Oct. 6, 2020
Page Count: 352
Review Posted Online: June 26, 2020
Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2020