Book Review: “The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles

Cover: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

A Midwest, mid-century, American coming-of-age epic, “The Lincoln Highway” takes to highways, railways and even an ill-fated boat to explore the shifting poles of loyalty, responsibility, and justice.

We follow several protagonists on this engrossing journey, but our first is Emmett. A native Nebraskan, he begins our novel returning home after a stint in juvie. He was serving for a crime that was more an accident–shades of Tom Joad–and he’s ready to move on to a fresh beginning, especially with his father dead, his family farm foreclosed on, and his little brother in his custody.

Complications ensue, though, when a couple former cellmates join his early parole‚Ķdespite the fact that they haven’t quite finished their sentences. They’re Duchess, a wise guy with a detestable con-artist dad, and Woolly, a dreamy rich kid from New York who spends his days zonked out on little bottles of “medicine.”

Emmett wants to take his brother out West to California for a fresh start restoring houses. But Duchess and Woolly have their eyes on Woolly’s inheritance out east, locked up in his great-grandfather’s safe. The group embarks together, then diverges, with most of the novel covering their struggle to meet back up to settle old business. Along the way there are hobo camps and burlesque circuses, orphans lavished with strawberry preserves and fantastical compendiums of heroes of old.

Author Amor Towles has a propulsive effect, carefully structuring his reversals and twists. He also has a compelling, half-folksy style, blending his near-mythical exploits with a kind of homespun wisdom, like a Homer of the highway.

His characters are memorable and well-voiced. Beyond that, though, he uses his dynamic cast to explore larger issues of character. What’s the boundary between a hothead/trickster/screw-up and a menace? Can everyone be redeemed? Or are some people just too lost, even if it’s due to circumstances beyond their control?

In wrestling with these issues, “The Lincoln Highway’s” energetic pace and smooth tone can work against it. Towles can gloss over the messiness of his characters with another cliffhanger or some new dramatic entrance. But to his credit, his keeps the messiness present, leaving it for the reader to work on, all the way to the novel’s divisive ending. (I found the finale too convoluted and not in keeping with the characterization shown to that point, but I enjoyed the journey to get there.)

Quotes

“For no matter how much chance has played a role, when by your hands you have brought another man’s time on earth to its end, to prove to the Almighty that you are worthy of his mercy, that shouldn’t take any less than the rest of your life.”

“Standing there before his grandfather’s clock listening to his brother-in-law, it suddenly occurred to Woolly that maybe, just maybe, St. George’s and St. Mark’s and St. Paul’s organized every day to be an every-day day not because it made things easier to manage, but because it was the best possible means by which to prepare the fine young men in their care to catch the 6:42 so that they would always be on time for their meetings at 8:00.”

“As the old gent shuffled his way to the bureau, I scanned the room, curious as to his weakness. At the Sunshine Hotel, for every room there was weakness, and for every weakness an artifact bearing witness. Like an empty bottle that has rolled under the bed, or a feathered deck of cards on the nightstand, or a bright pink kimono on a hook. Some evidence of that one desire so delectable, so insatiable that it overshadowed all others, eclipsing even the desires for a home, a family, or a sense of human dignity.”