A Novel Concept

A NOVEL CONCEPT: ‘Highway’ to Hell, Thanks to Some Sketchy Stowaway

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By Michael Malone

The Lincoln Highway, by Amor Towles, sets up as a road-trip book. It is 1954, and 18-year-old Emmett is sprung from a juvenile work farm out in the sticks. The facility warden drives him home in Nebraska. His mother departed the family long ago, his father has recently died, their family farm is taken over by the bank, and his little brother Billy, who is 8, has been taken in by a family down the road.

Emmett, who did time for involuntary manslaughter–he punched a bully at a carnival, and the bully fell, hit his head, and died–plans to depart for California with Billy. They’ll follow The Lincoln Highway, which little Billy adores. Emmett will renovate and sell homes, and get a business going. Maybe they’ll even find their long departed mother.

Emmett is dropped off by the warden, and realizes two pals from the work farm had hidden in the warden’s trunk. The arrival of Duchess and Woolly ends up throwing a big-time wrench into Emmett’s and Billy’s travel plans.

The book takes place over ten days, and each day – Ten, Nine, Eight, etc., starts a new section. Every chapter is centered on a different character, be it Emmett, Billy, Duchess, Woolly or Sally, the teen girl who watches over Billy when his brother is incarcerated.

The California road trip begins, but they detour to an orphanage where Duchess once resided, then Duchess steals Emmett’s car, and heads to New York to settle a few scores.

Emmett and Billy hop a freight train to Manhattan to find their friends.

The story eventually ventures to Westchester County, as Woolly’s sister lives in Hastings-on-Hudson.

Duchess and Woolly are intriguing characters. Duchess is a charmer and a very intelligent kid. He’s also violent. His father was an actor in Manhattan, but was a bit of a con man too, and once dropped Duchess off at an orphanage when he decided he could no longer raise him. Duchess clearly has issues, but possesses charisma in abundance.

Woolly has some sort of mental-health challenges that I could not put my finger on, perhaps something in the O.C.D. family. He’s sweet and earnest and likable. A wealthy kid, Woolly gets booted out of prep schools at a rate that Holden Caulfield might envy. At one school, Woolly is “taunted, teased, and goaded” by a thesaurus, of all things. Always looking to simplify his life, it bothers Woolly that the thesaurus offers ten different variables for a simple, basic word. He goes to the football field, sets the thesaurus on fire, and ends up igniting the goalposts too.

“The Dean of Students, who was presiding over the hearing, said that Woolly was there to answer for the fire he had set on the football field,” writes Towles. “A moment later, Mr. Harrington, the faculty representative, referred to it as a blaze. Then Dunkie Dunkle, the student council president (who also happened to be captain of the football team), referred to it as a conflagration. And Woolly knew right then and there that no matter what he had to say, they were all going to take the side of the thesaurus.”

The Lincoln Highway is a very entertaining book that offers a batch of colorful characters and a compelling look at mid-century America. As much as I liked Billy, who obsessively reads a book called Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers, I did find his character too sweet, too well behaved, too perfect to be truly believed. Another Billy issue–he knows from his book that Professor Abernathe has an office in the Empire State Building, so when they’re in Manhattan, they park at the building, take the elevator up to the 55th floor, and, sure enough, find an office plaque up there with Abernathe’s name on it, then meet the wise professor moments later.

That seemed a wee bit far-fetched, like the novel had slipped into magic realism without me realizing it.

The Lincoln Highway also could’ve used a strong female character other than Sally.

Towles was a banker before becoming a novelist. His other novels include A Gentleman in Moscow and Rules of Civility. The critics adore him. The Washington Post said of Lincoln Highway, “Gorgeously crafted…The novel embraces the contradictions of our character with a skillful hand, guiding the reader forward with ‘a sensation of floating – like one who’s being carried down a wide river on a warm summer day.’”

The Lincoln Highway, which came out in 2021, is Emmett and Billy’s story, but Duchess steals the show. A Manhattan kid, he’s struck by what he sees out in the heartland. “Most of the towns we passed through seemed to be limited to one of everything by local decree: one movie theater and one restaurant; one cemetery and one savings and loan; in all likelihood, one sense of right and wrong,” Towles writes.

Duchess notes that most people don’t really notice what makes their hometown different from every other town: “When they get up in the morning, they’re not looking to change the world. They want to have a cup of coffee and a piece of toast, put in their eight hours, and wrap up the day with a bottle of beer in front of the TV set. More or less, it’s what they’d be doing whether they lived in Atlanta, Georgia or Nome, Alaska. And if it doesn’t matter for most people where they live, it certainly doesn’t matter where they’re going.

“That’s what gave the Lincoln Highway its charm.”

The Lincoln Highway has charm in spades.

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