The latest novel from Amor Towles, author of A Gentleman in Moscow which I simply adored, is quite a different kind of book. Perhaps Towles needed a change from setting a novel almost entirely within the confines of a hotel – albeit a fairly grand one.
This time he’s taken us on a kind of road trip. And instead of a man of experience and taste as our main character, we’ve got several friends around eighteen years old, young men who met at Salina, a correctional facility for youth. It’s 1954 America – a conservative period full of opportunity. But these are lost boys, lacking parental love and guidance, having to overcome a misstep on their path to adulthood if they have a chance of making a life for themselves. We see them as they set out to do this in different and at times conflicting ways.
First up is Emmett, whose father died while he was away, leaving a farm in hock to the bank, awaiting a mortgagee sale. His younger brother, Billy, only eight, has been cared for by the neighbours, a farmer and his kindly, maternal daughter Sally. She has a soft spot for Emmett, but can only show this by cleaning the boys’ house and bringing them lovingly cooked meals. Otherwise, she’s usually giving Emmett a piece of her mind or stony silences.
After Emmett has been returned to his family home by the warden, Duchess and Woolly, two escapees from Salina, surprise Emmett, having stowed away in the trunk of the warden’s car. Duchess has been worried about sensitive, childlike Woolly, who has been struggling. So Duchess, an impulsive charmer, has taken matters into his own hands, seen an opportunity to save his friend, and get his hands on enough money to set them all up in life.
Sensible Emmett is appalled, having promised to take Billy to California in search of their mother and build a new life with the small stash of savings his father has left him. So many side-trips, diversions and interruptions hamper Emmett’s best of intentions and the four of them end up heading for New York one way or another.
Billy’s one consolation all the time he has been missing his mother, his brother’s time in Salina, his father’s passing and the loss of their home, has been a compendium of epic journeys by the heroes of literature – Achilles, Jason and Theseus for example – one for every letter of the alphabet. That and a handful of postcards written by the boys’ mother showing her progress west. And the best way to get there according to Billy is the Lincoln Highway.
I learned a lot of interesting things in this book. How to ride the empty cargo wagons on a freight train while avoiding being clocked by the guards. A trick with a cork and an empty wine bottle. How if you plan to stowaway in the trunk of a car, put teaspoon in your pocket so you can pop the lid when you want to get out.
The funny thing about a picture, thought Woolly, the funny thing about a picture is that while it knows everything that’s happened up until the moment it’s been taken, it knows absotively nothing about what will happen next. And yet, once the picture has been framed and hung on a wall, what you see when you look at it closely are all the things that were about to happen. All the un-things. The things that were unanticipated. And unintended. And unreversible.
Echoes of Billy’s compendium appear among the characters – not only the journey the boys take to New York, but in the helpful cargo train rider, Ulysses, who rescues Billy from a thief posing as a preacher. As you can see the novel has a picaresque quality about it, and that reminds you of stories like Don Quixote and Candide with the varied people the boys meet, the kind and the duplicitous, and the continued reversals of fortune.
And then you have the allusions to the tragic heroes like Macbeth who have a fatal flaw that can so easily lead them into disaster. Each of the boys has his own character fault that led him astray and on to Salina, and which they each must master if they want to avoid disaster. So the characters are affected not only by external events of fate or coincidence, but by those of their own making, their desires and needs.
There is so much going on in The Lincoln Highway I am sure I need to read it again to get the most of it. But again, Towles is such a delightful writer that every sentence is a joy. Situations that have the reader sighing an “Oh, no!” are nicely balanced with humorous ones and the story is paced and developed perfectly to its conclusion. I possibly didn’t like it quite as much as A Gentleman in Moscow, but it’s still a four and a half read from me, and I can’t wait to see what Towles comes up with next.