That is, to the riots. Rye is reluctant to join him. Having witnessed too much poverty and death in his young life, he’s driven less by idealism than by the need to eat. He is a pacifist and a skeptic. Yet he isn’t devoid of the romantic impulse. “Rye had an insight that felt like a reverie,” Walter writes, “that, man or woman, Catholic or Prod, Chinese, Irish or African, Finn or Indian, rich or poor or poor or poor, the world is built to eat you alive, but before you go down the gullet, the bastards can’t stop you from looking around.”
Loose, lyrical passages like this one celebrate the democratic ideal, at present so degraded and very evidently on Walter’s mind. Both brothers attend the free speech event: Gig as a devoted socialist, Rye as a devoted brother. Both are arrested. But one is still a boy, and when Rye’s age is discovered, Gurley Flynn secures his release and turns Rye into a prop in the socialist struggle. He just as quickly becomes the pawn of anarchists and hired goons, too.
The plot follows: Will Gig get out of jail? Will Rye sell his soul to guarantee it? Who will die?
Walter has made a major career out of the minor character, and his portrait of Rye is not unlike that of his B-list lovers in “Beautiful Ruins,” or the poet-father drug dealer in “The Financial Lives of the Poets,” who is generously brought to life with humanity and wit. Walter’s latest novel is more hybrid beast than those earlier books: not quite fiction and not history but a splicing of the two, so that the invented rises to the occasion of the real and the real guides and determines the fate of the invented. He makes this explicit on his acknowledgments page: “What happens to the historical figures in the novel is generally what happened to them in life.”
I found this a fascinating stipulation: If a bit of burlesque creeps in around the edges of Walter’s showgirls, tramps and ardent idealists, as perhaps it should, very real violence and the tidal pull of history keep the book tethered. So do injustice, poverty, bigotry, ecological disaster. Turns out this tramp’s tale is a timely book, and its timeliness suggests an ethos: There is no place here for lofty speculation or counterfactuals, time machines or talking dogs.
There is instead a fealty to fact and to strict cause-and-effect, with an abiding preference for the historically plausible over the fictionally possible in both plot and characterization. Which isn’t to say the book lacks brio or invention; it is full of both. But there’s also a strong invitation, as Rye navigates his way through conspiracies and bloodshed, to link the historical events of his time to the present day, and to ask what Walter means to say about capital-H history by inventing one of its walk-on characters.
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