In Search of a New Beginning

Detours are natural parts of our lives. The journey towards our destination is not always straightforward. This can be gleaned from the story of American writer Amor Towles. While he was studying, he used his breaks to write. A series of his short stories were even published in The Paris Review in 1989. He credited novelist Peter Matthiessen, a naturalist and one of the founders of the popular magazine The Paris Review, as his inspiration for his writings. However, his dream of becoming a writer took the backseat as he had to earn a stable salary in order to support himself and his family. It was after a decade of working in the corporate world that he realized that the desire to write still burns within him. Inspiration was hard to come by but eventually came. In 2011, he finally published his first novel, The Rules of Civility. It was a commercial and critical success, establishing Towles as a writer to watch out for. His second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow (2016), was equally successful, further consolidating his status as a rising literary star.

The detour that Towles took in his life was depicted in his latest novel. Five years after the success of A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles made his long-awaited comeback with his third novel, The Lincoln Highway, which hit the stands in late 2021. Towles’ latest novel commenced in 1954 when the novel’s main character, Emmett, had to take a detour – one of many he would experience in his young life – after he accidentally killed a bully. In the opening sequence, he was driven to Morgen, Nebraska by the warden of Salina, the reform school he attended. During his time at the reform school, his father, a farmer, was diagnosed with cancer and it didn’t take long for him to pass away. With no other family member to look after him and his younger brother Billy, Emmett was released. The bank foreclosing the farm owned by their father only made matters worse for the young brother. The story opened with a series of unfortunate events, but the adventure of a lifetime will eventually ensue.

Unbeknownst to both Billy and the reform warden, Duchess and Woolly, two stowaways from the reform school, managed to sneak into the trunk of the warden’s car. Left without much choice, Emmett took his reform school friends into his fold. However, they must come up with a plan. The first plan of action: they have to leave Nebraska. Even before Emmett was released from the reform school, he already conceived a plan to leave his home state. While driving his only prized property, a Studebaker that he purchased using money he saved while working as a carpenter’s apprentice, he planned to move to Texas with his younger brother. He was hoping to settle and establish themselves in Texas. What he didn’t account for in his tightly knit plan was another detour.

“Questions can be so tricky, like forks in the road. You can be having such a nice conversation and someone will raise a question, and the next thing you know you’re headed off in a whole new direction. In all probability, this new road will lead you to places that are perfectly agreeable, but sometimes you just want to go in the direction you were already headed. “

– Amor Towles, The Lincoln Highway

While going through their father’s things, Billy stumbled on a stash of postcards that their mother sent to their father. A couple of years ago, their mother left them and their father because their father’s farming enterprise was anything but a failure. The postcards showed the route their mother took after leaving Morgen. The backbone of her journey was the titular Lincoln Highway which ended in San Francisco. Billy was convinced that if they follow their mother’s journey, they will find her in San Francisco. Emmett wasn’t too keen on meeting their mother after all these years. He also didn’t want to disappoint his brother. He finally relented when he learned that many are moving to California and that its economy is expected to grow exponentially. Where Billy saw a family reunion, Emmett saw an opportunity to earn a decent living. All details were ironed out. They were to depart for San Francisco with the hope of reaching it before the July 4 celebrations.

The titular Lincoln Highway, carrying the name of definitely one of the most popular American presidents, pertains to one of the first highways for cars that connected the Continental US East Coast with the West Coast. The idea was initially conceived in 1912 by Carl G. Fisher, an Indiana automobile entrepreneur. Through the help of donations, Fisher managed to build the earliest section of the highway in 1913 in DeKalb, Illinois. Upon its completion, the highway slithers through a total of 14 states and ends in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park. Emmett and Billy were hoping that this historical roadway would take towards a brighter future, a new life, and a new beginning. Before that, they must make a stopover as they must drop off Woolly and Duchess who will venture towards the opposite direction.

Who’d have thought that that single stopover would realign their plan? Certainly not Emmett. He would realize that even the best-laid plans don’t go as expected. The unexpected is bound to happen, causing everything to unravel. The main characters found themselves in yet another detour, perhaps a final one, that will drive them in the opposite direction. Emmett, Billy, Woolly, and Duchess got involved on a cat and mouse chase towards the starting point of the Lincoln Highway: Times Square in New York City. They were all in an adventure of a lifetime and along the way, they encountered situations that would test their mettle while meeting equally interesting characters who were on adventures themselves. What they were not expecting was the new set of adventures, misadventures, and detours that awaited them in the Big Apple. What was once a straightforward drive turned into a caper where one can only expect the unexpected.

In his latest novel, Towles takes the readers on a rollercoaster ride. However, the adventure that the four main characters undertook was not just physical but also deeply personal. As the landscape changes on the way to New York, the characters started discovering more about themselves and how they fit into the world. Apart from being sent to reform school for juvenile offenses, the characters share the unfortunate similarity of being abandoned by their parents, in particular by their fathers. There was a palpable distance between fathers and sons as the sons failed to live to up the expectations of their parents. Emmett chose to be a carpenter over being a farmer after witnessing his father’s desperate attempts to succeed at farming. Woolly, the son of a well-to-do family, was a dreamer and was generally out-of-touch with reality. Duchess, on the other hand, was a charmer but his charming facade belie a darker interior.

“If I learned anything in the war, it’s that the point of utter abandonment—that moment at which you realize no one will be coming to your aid, not even your Maker—is the very moment in which you may discover the strength required to carry on. The Good Lord does not call you to your feet with hymns from the cherubim and Gabriel blowing his horn. He calls you to your feet by making you feel alone and forgotten. For only when you have seen that you are truly forsaken will you embrace the fact that what happens next rests in your hands, and your hands alone.”

– Amor Towles, The Lincoln Highway

The development and self-discoveries by the main characters propelled the story. Towles provided a profile of each character, and their shifting points-of-view and their distinct characteristics provided the story a compelling texture. Their backgrounds and their personal narratives were seminal in the appreciation of their growth as the story progressed. In their unexpected journey, they slowly learn how to rise to the occasion in order to meet what fate had designed for them. In the process, they learn how to grapple with their history and make amends with it. The characters were on an odyssey that allowed them to make peace with and move on from their past, and settle old scores. The Lincoln Highway laid out the prospect of a cross-country adventure but the highway the characters trudged led them to new beginnings.

As if to further emphasize the character’s odyssey, Towles integrated elements of Greek mythology into the story. The reference was crude as the characters encountered a man named Ulysses while they were on a thrilling freight train journey to New York. Ulysses, the Latin variant for Odysseus, has a coincidentally, if not conveniently similar story as Odysseus. Like his mythological counterpart, he left for the war, leaving his wife and son. His wife, livid with his decision, swore that he will never see them again once he returns from the war. For eight years following the end of the war, Ulysses went searching for his wife and son. Stealthily and fearlessly riding freight trains across the continent has become second nature to him.

The parallels of the journeys of Ulysses and Odysseus were pointed out by Billy. When they encountered Ulysses, he was in the midst of reading his favorite big red book, Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers and Other Intrepid Travelers. Gifted to him by the school librarian, it was Billy’s most prized possession. It was while reading the book that he learned of Odysseus. The book and its stories would also provide company to the adventurers during their journey as Billy would often read them passages from the book. Echoes of myths, legends, and heroes accented the story, giving it an even more absorbing complexion.

The Lincoln Highway, with its eclectic mix of personalities, was a character-driven story. Towles fleshed out four flawed but equally compelling characters. Emmett was the quintessence of a loving and adoring brother who wants nothing but the best for Billy. Billy, at eight, possesses an uncharacteristic love for heroes. He has wisdom and knowledge well beyond his years. Duchess constantly fails to recognize the consequences of his actions. Nevertheless, he was an annoying friend who was filled with misguided but good intentions. His skewed sense of justice led him to dire straits. Such was his idea of justice. Woolly, dreamy and often sedate because of his medication, was in the possession of the key that will help unlock their future. They were capably supported by an equally absorbing set of secondary characters in Woolly’s sister, Sarah, and Emmett’s childhood friend, Sally. Somewhere lurks villains.

“For most people, rules were a necessary evil. They were an inconvenience to be abided for having the privilege of living in an orderly world. And that’s why most people, when left to their own devices, were willing to stretch the boundaries of a rule. To speed on an empty road or liberate an apple from an untended orchard.”

– Amor Towles, The Lincoln Highway

The novel’s fine elements were skillfully woven together by Amor Towles’ dexterous and vibrant storytelling. His prose delivered a multilayered story that keeps the readers riveted. It was an atmospheric read. Through his descriptive prose, he managed to paint a vivid picture of New York City. He invited the readers in, making them experience the charm of the city, from the pleasures of the theaters to the thrills of a circus. The novel captured the intricacies of the city’s trains and subways. The readers were like Billy, in awe of the city and its wonders, from the Empire State Building to Harlem to the thoroughfares. It was an ode to the Big Apple.

In his latest novel, Towles adopted a lighter tone, a stark contrast to the more sophisticated voice of Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov in A Gentleman in Moscow. The novel was doused in humor, sometimes dark, and wit. It was more dynamic, as the point-of-view shifted from one character to another. However, this was also the novel’s own undoing. The story meandered and constantly loses its focus. The humor, at times, came across as slapstick comedy that was unnecessary. Towles also bloated the novel by creating a backstory to nearly every secondary character that the novel’s heroes encountered. These details muddled the main story and, oftentimes, Emmett’s voice was muted. Repetitions also abounded in the story, as the Compendium got mentioned at nearly every opportunity. In medias res, literally “into the midst of things”, was also a mantra.

No story, after all, is without blemishes. But despite its flaws, The Lincoln Highway was a scintillating story about a band of brothers who bonded by something greater than blood, by their shared experiences. They were imperfect but their imperfections made them relatable characters. Out to discover what life holds for them, the adventure they set out for led them in the opposite direction but it also led them to an odyssey of self-discovery, growth, and development. The Lincoln Highway is a multifaceted story about friendship, brotherhood, and misfits. Tragedy trickled into the story in surprising ways but it was also brimming with tender moments shared between brothers for life. It was about life in general, a fine and entertaining intersection of humor, grief, wit, tragedy, and most importantly, hope.

Ratings

74%

Characters (30%) – 25%
Plot (30%) – 20%
Writing (25%) – 19%
Overall Impact (15%) – 
10%

It was during one of my excursions to the bookstore that I came across Amor Towles back in 2019. His novel, A Gentleman in Moscow piqued my interest, and without more ado, I acquired a copy of the book. It then became part of my 2021 reading journey. The book started out slow before it finally soared; once it did, there was no looking back. A Gentleman in Moscow ended up being one of my favorite reads in 2021. When I learned Towles was releasing a new work later in the year, I was excited for Towles became one of my favorite new authors. Thankfully, the book was already available in the bookstore. While I was unable to read it last year, I lined it up for my 2021 books reading catchup in early 2022. In his third novel, Towles again relied on what he does best: historical fiction. It was not, however, purely historical for it was laced with adventure. The novel has flashes of brilliance but its tendency for repetitions affected my appreciation of the story. The story also meandered and was brimming with unnecessary details. Nevertheless, I liked the portrayal of the tender moments between brothers Emmett and Billy although Billy can be, as Duchess has said, an annoying know-it-all.

With this said, I am still looking forward to reading more of Towles’ future works. His debut novel, The Rules of Civility remains a part of my to-be-read list.

Book Specs

Author: Amor Towles
Publisher: Viking
Publishing Date: 2021
Number of Pages: 576
Genre: Adventure, Historical

Synopsis

In June 1954, eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson is driven home to Nebraska by the warden of the juvenile work farm where he has just served fifteen months for involuntary slaughter. His mother long gone, his father recently deceased, and the family farm foreclosed upon by the bank, Emmett’s intention is 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 have hidden themselves in the trunk of the warden’s car. Together, they have hatched an altogether different plan for Emmett’s future, one that will take them on a fateful journey in the opposite direction – to the city of New York.

Spanning just ten days and told from multiple points of view, Towles’ third novel will satisfy fans of his multilayered literary styling while providing them an array of new and richly imagined settings, characters, and themes.

About the Author

To learn more about Amor Towles, click here.