Read with sharon - March 2022
The Lincoln highway - amor towles
In June 1954, 18-year-old Emmett Watson is driven home to Nebraska by the warden of the juvenile work farm where he has just served 15 months for involuntary manslaughter. His mother long gone, his father recently deceased, and the family farm foreclosed upon by the bank, Emmett’sintention is to pick up his eight-year-old brother, Billy, and head to California where they can start their lives anew.
But when the warden drives away, Emmett discovers that two friends from the workforce have hidden themselves in the trunk of the warden’s car. Together, they have hatched an altogether different plan for Emmett’s future, one that will take them all on a fateful journey in the opposite direction- to the City of New York.
Spanning ten days and told from multiple points of view, Towles’s third novel is a multilayered tale of misadventure and self-discovery, populated by an eclectic cast of characters, from drifters who make their home riding the rails and larger-than-life vaudevillians to the aristocrats of the Upper East Side. An absorbing, exhilarating ride, The Lincoln Highway is a novel as vivid, sweeping, and moving as readers have come to expect from Towles’s work.
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The Lincoln Highway is a joyride. Amor Towles’ new Great American Road Novel tails four boys — three 18-year-olds who met in a juvenile reformatory, plus a brainy 8-year-old — as they set out from Nebraska in June, 1954, in an old Studebaker in pursuit of a better future. If this book were set today, their constant detours and U-turns would send GPS into paroxysms of navigational recalculations. But hitch onto this delightful tour de force and you’ll be pulled straight through to the end, helpless against the inventive exuberance of Towles’ storytelling.
Like his first two novels, The Lincoln Highway is elegantly constructed and compulsively readable. Again, one of the ideas Towles explores is how evil can be offset by decency and kindness on any rung of the socio-economic ladder. His first novel, Rules of Civility (2011), set among social strivers in New York City in 1936, took its inspiration from F. Scott Fitzgerald and its title from George Washington’s Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. His much-loved second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow (2016), incorporated nods toward the great Russian writers and shades of Eloise at the Plaza and Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel. Mostly confined to a single setting — Moscow’s luxurious Metropol Hotel — it spanned 32 years under Stalin’s grim rule.
Towles’ new novel ranges further geographically — from Nebraska’s farmland to New York’s Adirondacks by way of some of New York City’s iconic sites — but its action-packed plot is compressed into just 10 days. The Lincoln Highway, which owes a debt to Huckleberry Finn, revisits American myths with a mix of warm-hearted humor and occasional outbursts of physical violence and malevolence that recall E.L. Doctorow’s work, including Ragtime.
The novel begins on June 12, 1954 and ends on the same date, clearly not coincidentally, as A Gentleman in Moscow. When we meet him, Towles’ latest hero, Emmett Watson, has been released a few months early from detention in consideration of his father’s death, the foreclosure of the family farm, and his responsibility for his 8-year-old brother, Billy. (Billy has been ably taken care of by a neighbor’s hard-working daughter, Sally, during Emmett’s absence; she’s another terrific character.) The kindly warden who drives Emmett home reminds him that what sent him to the Kansas reformatory was “the ugly side of chance,” but now he’s paid his debt to society and has his whole life ahead of him.
Shortly after the warden drives off, two fellow inmates turn up, stowaways from the warden’s trunk — trouble-maker Duchess and his hapless but sweet protegé, Woolly. (In another fun connection for Towles nerds, naïve trust funder Wallace “Woolly” Wolcott Martin is the nephew of Wallace Wolcott from Rules of Civility.)
Eagerness to discover what landed these three disparate musketeers in custody is one of many things that keeps us turning pages. Expectations are repeatedly upended. One takeaway is that a single wrong turn can set you off course for years — though not necessarily irrevocably.
The Lincoln Highway is, among other things, about the act of storytelling and mythmaking. The novel probes questions about how to structure a narrative and where to start; its chapters count down from Ten to One as they build to a knockout climax. Towles’ intricately plotted tale is underpinned by young Billy’s obsession with a big red alphabetical compendium of 26 heroes and adventurers — both mythical and real — from Achilles to Zorro, though the letter Y is left blank for You (the reader) to record your own intrepid quest.
Billy is determined to follow the Lincoln Highway west to San Francisco, where he hopes to find his mother, who abandoned her family when he was a baby and Emmett was 8. (The number 8 figures repeatedly, a reflection of the travelers’ — and life’s — roundabout, recursive route.) Whether riding boxcars or “borrowed” cars, Towles’ characters are constantly diverted by one life-threatening adventure after another — offering Billy plenty of material for a rousing Chapter Y, once he figures out where to begin. One thing smart Billy comes to realize: He belongs to a long tradition of sidekicks who come to save the day.
“Most of us shell our days like peanuts. One in a thousand can look at the world with amazement,” Towles wrote in his first novel. Of course, Towles is drawn to that one in a thousand. His interest is in those whose zeal has not yet been tamped down by what Duchess (the only first-person narrator) describes, with improbable flair for a poorly-educated 18-year-old, as “the thumb of reality on that spot in the soul from which youthful enthusiasm springs.” With the exception of Woolly, the teenagers in this novel are remarkably mature by today’s standards, and burdened by cares. But at any age, it’s the young-at-heart who are most open to amazement — people like Woolly, who may not be cut out for this world but who can appreciate what he calls a “one-of-a-kind of day.”
There’s so much to enjoy in this generous novel packed with fantastic characters — male and female, black and white, rich and poor — and filled with digressions, magic tricks, sorry sagas, retributions, and the messy business of balancing accounts. “How easily we forget — we in the business of storytelling — that life was the point all along,” Towles’ oldest character comments as he heads off on an unexpected adventure. It’s something Towles never forgets.
On a humid afternoon in June 1954, my parents married in a whitewashed Methodist church in my mother’s hometown in rural south Georgia, rosette windows and palmettos framing the front doors. Vows exchanged, they climbed into a Chevrolet, hood ornament pointed toward a cottage on the Gulf of Mexico. A few black-and-white snapshots capture their honeymoon, edges scalloped, their faces bright and impossibly young. It’s all too easy to peer back at moments from that hopeful postwar era through a veil of nostalgia, even though the economic boom masked darker currents of inequity that would erupt a decade later.
It’s that sepia-tinted tension between aspiration and reality that fuels Amor Towles’s gorgeously crafted new novel. Set in that same month, “The Lincoln Highway” charts the cross-country adventures of four boys: Emmett Watson, an 18-year-old Nebraskan farm kid just released from a Kansas juvenile detention center after serving 15 months for involuntary manslaughter; his 8-year-old precocious brother, Billy; and two of Emmett’s fellow inmates, Duchess, a fast-talking swindler; and Woolly, the neurodivergent scion of an affluent Manhattan family — both recent escapees.
Emmett’s mother, an East Coast transplant, fled the family after Billy’s birth, leaving a trail of postcards as a clue to her whereabouts. His father, deep in debt, has been snuffed out by cancer. Emmett decides to indulge Billy’s fantasy of finding their mother in San Francisco, retracing her trek west along the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first transcontinental highway, which stretched from Times Square to California. The plan derails, though, when Duchess and Woolly show up unannounced. Emmett reluctantly agrees to give the pair a lift in his Studebaker — “it looked a little like a car that your dentist’s wife would drive to bingo” — but only as far as the bus station in Omaha.
Book Club Questions
THE HEROINE’S JOURNEY
Who do you believe is the true protagonist of the story?
How do you think Emmett, Duchess, and Woolly’s various upbringings—particularly their relationships to their parents—have shaped them? How have their parents’ choices influenced their own desires and ambitions?
THE STORY PLOT
- What are the major turning points in this story?
- How was the pacing/structure (does it keep you engaged and are the stakes constantly escalating)
- How does New York differ in the eyes of Emmett, Duchess, Woolly, and Billy?
- Did it work for you?
- What do you think is the author’s message to readers of The Lincoln Highway? What did you take away from the book?
SYMBOLISM AND FORESHADOWING
- Let’s talk about symbolism. What symbolism was used in the book?
- What foreshadowing did you notice?
- Use one adjective to describe the writing itself.
- What would you change if you could rewrite The Lincoln Highway?
- The tone of each character’s chapters differs from the tone of the other characters’ chapters. How would you describe the style of the different characters’ chapters?
- What did you love most about the book?