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Ralph Walter: From ‘Zero’ to hero: Turns out renowned Spokane author Jess Walter is a pretty spectacular brother, too

UPDATED: Thu., Oct. 22, 2020

Ralph and Jess Walter under the Maple Street Bridge in Peaceful Valley on Thursday in Spokane.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Ralph and Jess Walter under the Maple Street Bridge in Peaceful Valley on Thursday in Spokane. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

When you’re the younger brother of a New York Times bestselling author, you tend to get peppered with a lot of questions:

Which book should I read first?

Are they making any of them into movies?

Can you convince him to read to my book club?

Uh, no.

But with the Tuesday release of Jess Walter’s latest, “The Cold Millions,” I can talk about his books and share some insight – mostly with the hope of inspiring a little something extra in my paycheck this week. (Hint, hint, Rob Curley.)

Let’s start with his novels.

Obviously, we’ll skip the first two, “Over Tumbled Graves” (2001) and “Land of the Blind” (2003). It’s been so long since I pretended to read them that I’ve completely forgotten what I was told they were about.

Instead, we’ll begin with 2004’s “Citizen Vince.” From what I remember, it centered around doughnuts and some loser named Vince. Look, I like longtime S-R sportswriter Vince Grippi as much as the next guy, but did we really need a whole book about him?

Next up was 2006’s “The Zero,” a National Book Award finalist. This thought-provoking gem immediately sparked a question within me about brotherhood and loyalty. “Wonder if I can get money back on a book that my brother just gave me?”

Jess followed that up in 2009 with “Financial Lives of the Poets.” After skimming it one evening, I realized just how much I hated finances. And poets. And reading.

That, of course, led to the 2012 blockbuster “Beautiful Ruins.” A New York Times bestseller for an astounding 69 weeks, it’s no doubt Jess’s biggest book to date. So big, in fact, that at my house it continues to prop up my computer monitor.

Which brings us to “The Cold Millions.”

Now, here’s where I wrap this story up with an old joke about how “The Cold Millions” is making an early bid to win my home’s Coaster of the Year Award, and cash in my “I Just Roasted My Big Brother” points.

After all, that was my first instinct when my editor asked me to write about Jess: be funny.

But for some reason – chalk it up to the heaviness of the pandemic, the seeming split of our society or just a little brother who’s finally growing up – being meaningful seems more fitting. So here goes.

The truth is, I’m Jess’ biggest fan.

Jess and Ralph Walter hoop it up under the Maple Street Bridge in Peaceful Valley on Thursday.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Jess and Ralph Walter hoop it up under the Maple Street Bridge in Peaceful Valley on Thursday. (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Over the years, I’ve gotten to join him on book tours. He’s included me on Hollywood trips (I was once “his people” on an elevator ride alongside Ray Romano and his people prior to a table read for a since-shelved “Citizen Vince” movie project). He even let me help him write jokes for actor Jack Black when he was being roasted by the Friars Club a few years back. The two were collaborating on a possible film at the time.

And yes, I’ve actually read and loved all of Jess’s books. That includes 1995’s “Every Knee Shall Bow,” the story of the Ruby Ridge standoff between the federal government and Randy Weaver’s family; “In Contempt,” the 1996 memoir of O.J. Simpson prosecutor Christopher Darden; and 2013’s “We Live in Water,” a collection of his short stories.

And probably like you, I can’t pick a favorite among his work. I’m in awe of it all.

But my admiration for Jess goes way beyond books and celebrity.

I could go on and on about what a wonderful brother, friend and mentor he’s been to my sister, Kristie, and me over the years. Or what an incredible father he’s been to his three children, Brooklyn, Ava and Alec. My own daughter, Ava, raves about him as an uncle.

Instead, though, I’d like to share two stories.

The first happened more than 20 years ago. In 1997, our mom, Carol, died mere months after a diagnosis of stomach cancer, just shy of her 54th birthday. In an instant, our family’s anchor – the one person we all leaned on for strength, for guidance and for comfort – was gone.

Jess’ powerful eulogy at her packed funeral brought tears and laughter on a day I’ll never forget. It was the first time I’d witnessed the effect he had on people with his words.

And whether he meant to or not, that was the day Jess assumed the role as our family’s anchor. Just like our mom, Jess embodies compassion, empathy and selflessness.

And that leads me to my second story, which is still unfolding.

Our dad, Bruce, has been facing declining health for a while now. Alzheimer’s continues to rob him of his familiar spark, while a lifetime of smoking has taken a physical toll as well.

Through it all, again, there’s Jess. He’s taken the lead on arranging Dad’s care. He’s always first to race out to see him when there’s an emergency. He makes the most difficult decisions.

Like always, he’s our anchor.

Jess dedicated his latest book, “The Cold Millions,” to my dad and me.

At least for one day, I can return the favor. Here’s something dedicated to Jess.

Thanks, my brother.

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