The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

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Review by Annabel

Amor Towles’s first novel, Rules of Civility, was published in 2011 when he was in his mid-forties. It was such a success he was able to retire from investment banking to write full time. Rules was a superb debut; set in late 1930s Manhattan, it follows a year in the life of a young secretary who by chance falls in with an upper-class New York set. It evoked the jazz age wonderfully and I adored it.

Towles then moved back a decade for his second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, published five years later (reviewed here). A Russian count is sentenced to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol in Moscow and has to rebuild his life from nothing by working in the hotel. In a superb character study, Towles follows Rostov’s life for three decades full of glorious detail in a novel which I loved even more.

For The Lincoln Highway, another five years later, Towles changes everything once again. He says that as an author he wants the challenge of retooling his writing for each book, and in a fascinating introduction to the book on his website here he also explains his five year writing cycle.

The year is 1954, a sort of in-between postwar (WWII & Korea) year in which things are about to happen, rock and roll is just about born, and there is potential in the air. Emmett Watson is eighteen, and returns home to Nebraska after serving fifteen months at a juvenile work farm for accidental manslaughter. The only time he ever fought back, his opponent fell, hit his head and died.

Emmett wants to start a new life with his eight-year-old brother Billy in Texas. Their mother abandoned them years ago, their father had died since, and the farm is to be foreclosed on. Billy, who has lodged with their neighbours, tries to persuade Emmett that California is where they should be headed, not Texas. He has found postcards their mother sent, moving westwards to the Golden State, and is convinced she’ll be at the Independence Day celebrations on July 4th. Billy shows Emmett the map of the Lincoln Highway – a road that crosses America, starting in Times Square and ending in San Francisco. They should go search for their mother, travelling in Emmett’s blue Studebaker – his prized car in the barn.

But there is a big spanner in the works. Two of Emmett’s friends from the farm turn up, having run away. Duchess and ‘Woolly’ need to go in the other direction, to collect Woolly’s trust fund money from upstate New York. The four soon set off, planning to drop Duchess and Woolly off to catch a bus, but when Duchess steals borrows the car, Emmett and Billy are left without anything, and are forced to jump on a freight train and chase them to New York, taking them on a rather different journey.

Towles’ odyssey for this foursome is told over a period of ten days, and the story switches between Emmett and Billy, and Duchess and Woolly, with all four taking turns at the main narration, although there are four other narrators of smaller sections including Sally, the daughter of Emmett’s neighbour who runs away to join them, providing a young woman’s perspective.

Billy is the real star of the story and Towles captures his innocence and optimism so well. He is also very resourceful, thanks to his bible, Professor Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers, the book he carries with him always. It’s lovely when Towles manages to engineer a meeting between Billy and Abernathe in New York – the latter realising that he has much to learn from his young fan. I couldn’t help but be reminded of Reif Larsen’s The Selected Works of T.S.Spivet which featured a twelve-year-old mapmaker who jumps a freight train in Billy’s story.

This novel is a long one-–theirs is a long journey after all—but it never flags, despite being episodic in nature. There are nods to Homer’s Odyssey throughout, as well as to Huck Finn in Duchess’s characterisation. Towles brings his characters and their situations to brilliant life on the page, the detail of time and place is precise but never overwhelming. Dialogue is signalled with dashes rather than speech marks and there are fewer ‘he said/she saids’ which keeps the text uncluttered and pacy.

Once again Towles writes with a deceptively light touch and there is a rich vein of humour that runs through the story. That’s not to say that it is all lightness, there are dark moments too, and some of the chapters end on real cliff-hangers that all propel the story onwards.

Overall, reading The Lincoln Highway was a joyous adventure for me, a superb dose of escapism and definitely one of the best books I’ve read this year.

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Annabel is Co-founder and an editor of Shiny New Books and still loves the idea of going on an American road trip.

Amor Towles, The Lincoln Highway (Hutchinson Heinemann, 2021). 978-1786332523, 592pp., hardback.

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