Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Amor Towles has shown unequivocal talent for delivering sophisticated stories examining the human condition under unusual circumstances, and in his third novel, The Lincoln Highway, he places an eighteen-year-old boy under his microscope. Transporting us to 1954, the story follows ten days in the life of Emmett Watson, recently released from a juvenile work farm for involuntary manslaughter, now standing on the threshold of drastic personal changes.
Table of contents
Amor Towles Embarks on a Road Trip
As we grow older, our relation to our own plans for the future tends to change depending on how well we’re able to realize them. While our degrees of success do vary, I think most of us will agree they are necessary to have, but shouldn’t be relied upon; there are far too many unpredictable factors to contend with. In Amor Towles‘ The Lincoln Highway we get to see just how erratic life can become, and how hard it can laugh at any plans we make.
The story takes us to the United States in June 1954, introducing us to Emmett Watson, an eighteen-year-old boy on a bus back home. He has recently served fifteen months at a juvenile work farm for involuntary manslaughter, and is intent on using his newfound carpentry skills to make a life for himself and his younger brother Billy.
Upon returning home, he finds his father recently deceased, and his mother long gone, with Billy believing she drove off to California. To heap just a bit more misery on top of them, the bank is foreclosing the family farm, leaving the boys with but one sensible recourse: travel to California in hopes of starting their lives anew, and perhaps finding their mother.
However, fate throws a solid wrench in these plans in the form of Woolly and Duchess, two escapees from the juvenile work farm who hitched a ride in the trunk of the bus which brought Emmett here. They have a plan of their own: to steal a fat wad of cash from Woolly’s family safe, located all the way in New York.
When Duchess steals Emmett’s car he forces the young man and his brother on a train which marks the beginning of their ten-day journey across the United States of almost one century ago now. Along the way, they meet a whole host of people from all walks of life, each of them trying to realize their own plans for a future which keeps on changing without their consent.
The Meandering Nature of The Lincoln Highway
If you’re already familiar with Amor Towles‘ style of writing and content, then you know not to expect anything remotely close to an action-packed thriller. On the contrary, he is the type of author who enjoys taking his time to describe scenes, settings and characters, allowing the reader to digest and appreciate everything they are reading.
This time around, it feels like his style has been pushed a bit further to an extreme, and if I had to use one word to describe the nature of the plot, I would say it’s meandering for the most part (though not necessarily in a bad way).
Though the start of the story does feel somewhat objective-driven, when Emmett and Billy embark on the train things start to feel a little vague and directionless, with the purpose of our protagonists not being immediately apparent. I suppose it would be accurate to say they are simply in search of a place in the world they can call a home, a place they can realize their plans for the future.
The other characters we’re introduced to also fall in line with this atmosphere permeating the entire book, more often than not appearing to lack a drive or concrete objectives to achieve. The pace itself only reinforces Amor Towles‘ style further, being, for the most part, slow in its speed and vague in its motions.
Given all this, I can certainly see how The Lincoln Highway isn’t a book capable of catering to every reader, but if you don’t mind the type of story which isn’t in a rush to get anywhere, then there is certainly a whole lot you can get from this novel. It might take a few adjustments on your part to attune yourself with the book’s overall mood and tone, but in my opinion the efforts are well worth it.
The Colourful Nature of Unplanned Existence
While the story itself might be slow and most characters lacking in purpose, this doesn’t mean they have nothing of value to give us. On the contrary, each and every character is given the sort of attention we’re used to see Amor Towles give his creations; it takes little time for any one of them to come alive and seem like a real person.
The cast is quite varied and vivid, even if is apparent how some of the characters have been conceived with well-known archetypes in mind. Most importantly, they all feel like they belong in the world they inhabit, natural products of their environments. Each one of them has something interesting to share with us, a little story or a bit of wisdom we would do well to mull over during the slow progress we make through Emmett’s ten-day journey.
Although the plot moves along fairly slowly, the author has managed to add a bit of excitement to The Lincoln Highway in the form of a narrative which jumps from one person to another. We never spend too long of a time walking down any given path, and just when it feels like a particular plotline might start to get tedious the author switches us to another one.
Amor Towles’ prose and storytelling abilities are simply second to none, something he has managed to refine even further since writing A Gentleman in Moscow. Every phrase flows seamlessly into the next one, and he has a remarkable ability for meditating on complicated topics while keeping the language relatively simple, but more importantly, his ideas neatly-organized.
Ultimately, to me the book felt like a celebration of the unpredictable nature of our lives, the unexpected roads we end up taking, and the failed plans leading us to destinies we couldn’t have possibly imagined for ourselves.
|592||Viking||Oct. 5 2021||978-0735222359|
The Final Verdict
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles is a thought-provoking work of historical fiction, one which tends to take its time but rewards us with a compelling world populated by a vivid cast of colourful characters with memorable sequences of their own.
If you’re in the market for a story which focuses on people and the human condition before anything else, and don’t mind a slower, more pensive pace, then I would definitely recommend you add this book to your collection.
Amor Towles is an American writer who graduated from Yale College and received an M.A. in English from Stanford University. He worked as an investment professional in New York from 1991 to 2012 and is best-known for his works of fiction The Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow.