Reading: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

TitleThe Lincoln Highway
AuthorAmor Towles
FinishedNovember 23, 2021

Amor Towles’ novel A Gentleman in Moscow is a fantastic story, so when he published this book I jumped on it. In terms of characters, plot, and setting the two novels could not be more different. Instead of focusing (mostly) on one man living in internal exile in a Moscow hotel for years, Towles’ new novel follows four boys on a journey from a Nebraska farm to Manhattan and then California. 

Eighteen year old Emmet Watson is granted an early release from the Salina, Kansas  juvenile detention center because his father has died leaving no one to care for Emmett’s younger brother Billy. Their father left the farm in tatters and Emmett wants to leave the small Nebraska town for Texas to start life anew. Their plans change when they discover Duchess and Woolly – fellow inmates from Salina – have escaped and followed Emmett home. Duchess, with Woolly in tow, has other plans. The four boys end up journeying to New York City by various routes: Duchess to settle some scores and get some money “owed” to Woolly;  Emmett and Billy to get back to their original plan.

The novel’s chapters are dedicated to the point of view of one of the four characters with a chapter or two for others – like Sally and Ulysses – included. Although Emmett is the protagonist of the novel, Duchess is the most compelling character. Like Satan in Paradise Lost, the bad guy is the most interesting. 

The novel explores the idea of balancing what we owe to one another. Duchess realizes he owes some debts to others while some people – primarily his father – owes a debt to him. He reflects back on a discussion with a nun years before:

“…through our misdeeds we put ourselves in another person’s debt, just as through their misdeeds, they put themselves in ours. And since it’s these debts – those we’ve incurred and those we’re owed – that keep us stirring and stewing in the early hours, the only way to get  agood night’s sleep is to balance the accounts.”

page 92

Time and again Emmett struggles to reason with Duchess, but Duchess is single-minded. Townhouse, another acquaintance, has this to say:

“Look, he said, I know you like Duchess, Emmett. So do I. He’s a loyal friend in his own crazy way, and he’s one of the most entertaining [expletive] slingers whom I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. But he is also like one of those guys who are born with no peripheral vision. He can see everything that’s right in front of him, see it more clearly than most, but the second that something is pushed an inch to the left or right, he doesn’t even know it’s there. And that can lead to all kinds of trouble. For him, and for anyone within spitting distance.”

Page 378

This is a fast paced novel tracing the two pairs of boys: Emmett and Billy, and Duchess and Woolly over ten days. Towles builds to a climax on the last two days. One of the things I love most about this book is how Towles shows us what is important, rather than telling us. And the tension between showing the initial problem and resolving it may take many pages. A small example of this is when a man asks Emmett “What’s the difference between a ton of flour and a ton of crackers?” on page 152 but we don’t learn that Emmet immediately got the answer for another 15 pages when it is important for us to know why it matters. This same technique of laying out a situation but then waiting for many chapters to shine a light on what it is we are seeing. Great stuff.

And Towles does a wonderful job describing characters. Duchess has to find Fitzy in New York City to help settle another debt. Fitzy is a down on his luck alcoholic. 

“The Irish whiskey that had once put the jovial blush in [Fitzy’s] yuletide cheeks assumed command over his general welfare by emptying his coffers and severing his connections to clean clothes and polite society.”

Page 254

If you are going to read only one Amor Towles book, pick A Gentleman in Moscow. But this is also a worthy choice.,

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