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Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

I opened this weighty 576 page tome, the heft of it making me feel it was going to be a substantial read, with a sense of anticipation. Having already read Amor Towle’s previous books Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow I was expecting deft and assured storytelling with a sweeping feeling of the historical period and engaging, lively characters. And I was not disappointed. The Lincoln Highway is both focussed, covering a time span of only ten days but also sprawling, with a multitude of individuals’ stories and a constant switching of perspectives from one character to another.

This is the tale of a young man who endeavours to make a fresh start. It is 1954 in Nebraska and Emmett, aged eighteen, is driven home by a warden after a spell in juvenile detention for involuntary manslaughter, an accidental death caused by a youthful reaction to being taunted. His father has died, his mother left years before and the Midwest farm is being foreclosed. With his precocious, preternaturally wise and intelligent 8-year-old brother Billy, Emmett plans to head west to California to use his building skills to build a new life for them both and where Billy believes they will find their mother.

But from the outset other people and events conspire to interfere with their plan and take them off course. They plan to follow the Lincoln Highway, the first road to link America from coast to coast, west to San Francisco in Emmett’s 1948 baby blue Studebaker, his pride and joy. However two stowaways in the trunk of the warden’s car, eighteen-year-olds Duchess and Woolly, turn up before they set out and interfere with those plans. Duchess, outwardly charming but with a frontier sense of justice, and Woolly, addicted to his “medicine” and out of touch with the everyday world, have a plan to head to the Adirondack mountains to collect Woolly’s trust fund, hidden in a safe at his wealthy family’s country home. The car is “borrowed” by Duchess and Woolley so Emmett and Billy must change tack and head east to New York to retrieve it. The two brothers hitch rides on freight trains taking them across country in the opposite direction from California, meeting good and bad on their way. The tale takes on epic proportions as they encounter all sorts of people, overcome obstacles and track down Duchess and Woolley.

Emmett and Billy deal with the circumstances they are faced with and try to head back on the path towards the future they have planned in a car that is now bright hornet yellow. Their journey is reflected in Billy’s book of heroic stories and it is not hard to see this story in the same mythical proportions as they face obstacles and are blown off course. Stories abound as the reader encounters a rich variety of characters and are introduced to their journeys in life.

The presentation of responsible and honest Emmett and his prodigiously intelligent little brother in an heroic light reflects the tale’s epic proportions. There is also a multitude and variety of peripheral characters – Ulysses the strongly built “Negro” travelling the trains and searching for his wife and child; the desperate, scheming Pastor John; and the ivory-towered professor Abacus writing about heroic adventures but longing for one of his own. Then there is the hardworking resourceful country girl Sally, a young woman well versed in domestic duties but determined to have a life of her own; and Sarah, the good-natured and warm-hearted, wealthy but unhappy society wife, both women stifled by the men in their lives. That many of these characters fill a representative role makes The Lincoln Highway a myth in itself albeit one embedded in 1950s America with all its flavours of boom and bust, of optimism and growth alongside individual stories of failure and broken dreams, of marginalised and privileged living side by side.

If a myth is an oft-repeated story with profound lessons to be learned, then this is one in which the individual is at the mercy of the world around them, where events and people conspire to influence the course of the individual’s life but where ultimately, the individual’s character and response to circumstance will determine their course.

The structure of the story is unusual with chapters counting down from ten to one, and the third-person narrative continuing the story from the perspective of one character after another, creating a stranded tapestry of a tale. Interspersed throughout the story is the first-person perspective of ne’er-do-well Duchess, a device that allowed me to feel closely connected to a character unlikely to engage sympathy and one which also draws him into the foreground against the vast panorama of the story’s landscape.

Towles is a master storyteller, framing this journey in the heroic tradition, providing a narrative full of twists and turns to pull the reader along, and an engaging cast of characters and plenty of authorial musing and philosophising on life to fuel for discussion. Read to be absorbed, entertained and made to think. I loved it!

Reviewer: Clare Lyon



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