November 2022 Open Book Group – The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

Amor Towles graduated from Yale College and received an MA in English from Stanford University. He worked for 20 years in investment banking before publishing his debut novel Rules of Civility in 2011. It became an instant bestseller. A Gentleman in Moscow (OBG October 2020) and The Lincoln Highway followed in 2016 and 2021 respectively. The three novels have collectively sold more than 60 million copies and have been translated into 30 languages.

Set in June 1954, The Lincoln Highway opens with eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson being driven home to Nebraska by the warden of the juvenile work farm. Emmett has just served fifteen months for involuntary manslaughter. His mother left the family years ago. His father is recently deceased. The family farm has been foreclosed upon by the bank. So, Emmett intends to pick up his eight-year-old brother, Billy, and head to California where they can start their lives anew.

But when the warden drives away, Emmett discovers that two friends from the work farm—the wily, charismatic Duchess and earnest, offbeat Woolly—have stowed away in the trunk of the warden’s car. Together, they have hatched an altogether different plan for Emmett’s future, one that will take the four of them on a fateful journey in the opposite direction to the city of New York.

Spanning ten days and told from multiple points of view The Lincoln Highway is a multilayered tale of misadventure and self-discovery, populated by an eclectic cast of characters, from drifters who make their home riding the rails and larger-than-life vaudevillians to the aristocrats of the Upper East Side

Sixteen people gathered for our meeting this month. As has become a trend we were split halfway between those who really enjoyed The Lincoln Highway and those who did not.

We agreed that, despite being 600 pages, Towles’ fluid writing style made it an easy read. The book is split into ten chapters starting with chapter 10 and progressing to chapter 1. For the reader, this imbued a sense of a countdown to the tragedies in the final chapter. A member pointed out that Billy also had ten postcards from his mother and the book covered ten days in the journey to find her.

The discussion moved to the themes of the book. We concluded the main theme is redemption. Emmett is seeking it, after killing a man accidentally by king hitting him, by setting up a new successful life in San Francisco with Billy. Duchess, with his unusual moral code, searches out those whom he has wronged and who have wronged him. He aims to settle the scores. Towles writes about Duchess in the first person. This gives the reader an insight into his internal thoughts and motivations. Emmett is described in the third person. We felt less connected to him.

Towles references other classic traveller stories such as The Iliad and The Odyssey, as well as frequent Shakespearean quotes. Some felt they may have missed the subtleties in his text by not being familiar with these works.

We found similarities to Still Life (OBG September 2022) with the precocious young Alys, like Billy, a key character. One member noted she found Alys mawkish whereas Billy was refreshing and believable, despite having wisdom beyond his eight years. We noted that he is a minor character at the beginning of the novel. By the end, he is pivotal to the plot when he cracks the code to the safe.

Some thought it was a male book. There are two female characters, the likable Sally, whose life was bound by domesticity and the brothel madam. We reminded ourselves that the novel is set in 1954. Towles seeks to capture the mores of the time.

One member saw the novel as a metaphor for life. Emmett and Billy drew up plans and studied maps for the journey to San Francisco. Then unforeseen circumstances and minor hiccups had large ramifications diverting them from their dreams.

We agreed the ending was ambiguous. Had Woolly committed suicide? Had Emmett intended to kill Duchess when he put him out in a leaky boat in the river knowing Duchess could not swim? Or had he given Duchess the choice of risking his life to save the money?

The detractors in the group many found the read very frustrating. Despite its title, the protagonists never travelled west on the highway. They were continually backtracking east to New York stymied by yet another problem. In the penultimate chapter, at last Emmett, Billy and Sally set off to San Francisco. Hurray! Only for Emmett to suddenly change his mind and turn around back to Woolly’s ancestral home in the Adirondacks, upstate New York After 550 pages many had had enough of the plot detours.

Others felt there were too many unnecessary minor characters taking up too much time. For example, once the evil Pastor John had been kicked off the train was there any need for him to reappear later on? Was the whole chapter Towles devoted to Duchess, Woolly and Billy visiting Professor Abacus Abernathe, the author of Billy’s travel book, necessary?

The Professor encouraged Billy to fill in the last chapter of his travel compendium book which asked about Billy’s journey. The pair discussed where the best place was to start a book. The conclusion was in medias res in the middle of the story. The Lincoln Highway does just that. One member wondered if the novel was written by Billy as he recalled his adventure to San Francisco.

If you have plenty of time, give The Lincoln Highway a try. See if you go with, or go against, the traffic of glowing published reviews.

Why was it called The Lincoln Highway? Why was it set in 1954? What is Towle’s writing process? He answers all these questions in the link below. Interesting.


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