Saturday, May 21, 2022

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

Title: The Lincoln Highway
Author: Amor Towles
Publication: Viking, hardcover, 2021
Genre: Historical Fiction
Setting: 1954, United States
Description: Emmett Watson has just served fifteen months in a juvenile facility for involuntary manslaughter but is released early when his father dies so he can care for his precocious eight-year-old brother Billy. The bank has repossessed the family farm but Emmett and Billy are eager to leave Nebraska and try their luck somewhere else. In fact, Billy has a plan. He wants them to go to San Francisco and try to locate their mother, who walked out on the family when Billy was a baby. Emmett is astonished by this idea but willing to make the attempt; however, their plans are derailed by the discovery that two of his friends from the reformatory hid in the trunk of the warden who drove Emmett home. Duchess and Woolly want to go to New York and hijack the expedition – and Emmett’s Studebaker – and that is when the misadventures begin. Going to San Francisco via New York turns out to be the least of the challenges for Emmett and Billy’s amazing road trip.

My Impression: I am a big fan of Towles’ first two books and was surprised when I heard he had picked such a dramatically different setting for this book but, although a little wary, I found it very enjoyable. One of the things I most enjoyed is Towles’ ability to create major and minor characters. This group of three young men, thrown together by circumstance but having become friends while at a juvenile work farm, understand each other’s quirks well, but Duchess and Woolly are just getting to know Billy, who is an eight-year-old with very decided ideas:
Woolly, who had been quietly looking at the scenery, turned to Billy with an awakened curiosity.

- What’s the Lincoln Highway, Billy? Is it a special highway?

- It was the first highway to cross America.

- The first highway to cross America, repeated Woolly in awe.

- Come on, Emmett, prodded Duchess. What’s seventeen and a half miles?

- It’s seventeen and a half miles, Emmett wanted to reply, on top of the hundred and thirty that we’re already going out of our way in order to take you to Omaha. But at the same time, Emmett knew that Duchess was right. The added distance wasn’t much to speak of, especially given how disappointed Billy would be if he insisted on taking Route 34.

- All right, he said. We’ll go by way of the Lincoln Highway.
Billy is a wonderful character, along with his book, Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers and his collection of silver dollars. Billy’s love of Emmett and confidence that his brother will protect him did not falter while Emmett was detained, and he is not reluctant to leave Nebraska behind but as eager for adventure as the heroes in his book. One of my favorite parts of the book is when Billy tells Ulysses, the large African American man who rescues him in the freight car, that he must have been named for the Great Ulysses of Greek legend, a chapter in his book. The other three young men are more complicated: Emmett who lost his temper once, fatally, in the incident that landed him in trouble manages to tolerate Duchess’ fast and loose attitude toward other people’s property and Woolly’s good-natured vagueness to a point.
Even I who have not read Huck Finn since tenth grade (and didn’t care for it then) saw some similarities and it is not surprising, given that The Rules of Civility was an homage to The Great Gatsby, or close to it, and Huck Finn is another great American novel. My friend Marlene felt the book was also influenced by Moby Dick, with regard to a brotherhood forming among the young men of a shared goal, even if their backgrounds are not necessarily exemplary, with their interdependence brought out as the story progresses.
As such, when Duchess suggested they go [to the Empire State Building[ in order to pay a visit to Professor Abernathe, you might have expected Woolly to feel the same excitement that he’d felt when he realized they’d be driving over the Brooklyn Bridge. But what he felt was a pang of anxiety – a pang that stemmed not from the thought of riding a teeny little elevator up into the stratosphere, but from the tone of Duchess’s voice. Because Woolly had heard that tone before. He had heard it from three headmasters and two Episcopal ministers and a brother-in-law named “Dennis.” It was the tone people used when they were about to set you straight.
Fiction about American road trips book is a popular subgenre from Jack Kerouac to Beany and the Beckoning Road and The Great Escape by Susan Elizabeth Phillips (she has actually written several road trip books). The real question is how does the road trip end? There were aspects of the ending of this book we disliked but Towles leaves some questions unanswered. Finally, I still find his non-use of quotation marks to be very pretentious but after a few chapters, one stops noticing. This was my seventeenth book in the 2022 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge led by Marg at The Intrepid Reader.
Source: Library


TracyK said...

I have been undecided about whether to read this or not, but your review has convinced me that it would be a worthwhile read. I will still wait awhile to get a copy. Maybe one will show up at the next book sale.

Katrina said...

I enjoyed this one although evidently I didn't think too deeply about it as I hadn't thought of the Huck Finn or Moby Dick similarities. I found the ending to be too abrupt although I did think there might be a sequel sometime. I wanted to know what happened to the brothers, did things work out for them?

Tina said...

Thanks for your comment on my blog about the Dervla McTiernan novel. Glad to hear Aisling is going to be in another book, I really liked her.

I have not read any Towles novels yet but I see he is popular!

Jeannike said...

Huckleberry Finn was the first thing I thought of when I read the reviews although I hadn't seen a review that mentioned it so I'm very glad you did. My husband has been reading to our grandson since he was a young boy - right now, in 8th grade, Three Men in a Boat, last year, Huckleberry Finn (after Last of the Mohicans). So I gave my husband Lincoln Highway for Christmas, thinking it would be a good follow up to Huck and if he reads in advance he can change language if needed. So it would be very helpful to have your opinion on whether it is 'suitable' for a 14 year old.

Marianne said...

That's on my wishlist after I read A Gentleman in Moscow and loved it. Thanks for your review.

Marg said...

This was my first Amor Towles book but it definitely won't be my last.

Thanks for sharing this book with the Hist Fic challenge!