The Lincoln Highway, by Amor Towles. Book report #6 (2023)

The Lincoln Highway, by Amor Towles. Pub 2021.

Another from the Christmas gift bounty, this is the third novel by Amor Towles, and he is three-for-three in delivering fantastic novels. His novels are getting longer, but unlike how I feel about John Irving (ahem), I do not begrudge Towles a single page.

Spanning just 10 days (not including flashbacks and backstories) in the early summer of 1954, the novel tells of Emmett Watson and his brother, Billy, and two recent friends of Emmett’s, Duchess and Woolly. Emmett was recently released from a juvenile detention centre and returns to his small Nebraska town. He plans to pick-up his clothes, his car, some money, and his brother, and then head west to start a new life. His friends have other plans, and thus begins a series of diversions and journeys for everyone. (I’ve done my best to avoid spoilers here.)

It is hard to believe that so much can happen to Emmett and Billy in just 10 days. After getting home from jail, Emmett sells the family farm, gets beat-up, and packs-up his and Billy’s life into just a few bags – and that’s just in the first day. From the moment he agrees to the “minor” diversion requested by Duchess, there is sense of foreboding of a bad choice. If Emmett is the hero, Duchess is the trickster. He’s one of those infuriating characters that always has a ready excuse or story for why he did what he did, even as he’s committing a horrible betrayal of a friend; someone who perpetually has his fingers crossed while claiming to be telling the truth.

From their home in Nebraska, Emmett and Billy end up backtracking the Lincoln Highway (albeit not by car) to its origins in New York City. There, after several misadventures and just-misses of connecting with Duchess, the story culminates in the judgement and redemption of all concerned. From there, Emmett and Billy are back on the road, once again heading to their future.

The beating heart of the story is Billy. His almost magical storytelling and his powerful and positive belief in the good in people, buoys Emmett through the worst of their situations and the wreckage of their plans by Duchess. He is guileless and stoic, and understandably Emmett’s greatest treasure.

Most other characters are important but minor, and Towles give each of them significance in the story and in Emmett and Billy’s lives, and leaves no one’s fate unaccounted for.

The story is both fast and slow as needed, with so many twists and coincidences that it is almost a fable. Indeed, there are many references and reflections throughout to epic adventures of knights, heroes, and legends, and the story does all of those justice.

Suffice to say, I loved this book. Like A Gentleman in Moscow, it was a page-turner. There are some familiar tropes (i.e. the precocious child who moves the story along in important ways) but also some new territory. Unlike the Gentleman who stays put the entire novel, this story is all about moving and moving on.

Fate: despite its heft, I’m going to hang on to it for a while, as it is worthy of rereading (I wish I’d done that with the Gentleman, which now I would love to read again).

1 – a book with a murder
14 – a book with a name in the title
17 – a book with a place name in the title
27 – a book received as a gift

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