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Book club: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

by
03 August 2023

Mark Oakley on Amor Towles’s The Lincoln Highway, a novel covering the road journey of four disparate travellers in 1954

LEO TOLSTOY is often credited with saying that there are two basic types of story: the first is when someone goes on a journey; the second is when a stranger comes to town. Christopher Booker recently expanded the range of plots to seven: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth.

It would be easy to classify The Lincoln Highway as an obvious “quest” novel: a story that takes place on the open American road in the tradition of Steinbeck, Kerouac, and Wolfe. The fact that it also takes us en route into the inner landscapes of the varied characters, and those whom they encounter, means that a conversation might be had about how readers view the narrative substance and effects of such an accessible read.

Amor Towles was an investment banker, but gave up his job to write. His first two books achieved global sales of four million, and have been translated into 30 languages. His previous novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, focuses on an imprisonment in a posh hotel on pain of death.

In contrast, The Lincoln Highway takes us out on to the open road, to the 3142-mile highway that crosses the United States from New York to San Francisco, passing through 14 states and about 700 cities and towns. Towles seems to have found his vocation. He has a gift for storytelling that is adventurous and hewed, anecdotal and spacious, detailed but enigmatic.

The novel is set in 1954, and takes place over ten days. Emmett Watson is 18, and has been released from a work farm on compassionate grounds after serving a short spell for accidentally killing a bully. His father has recently died, and his eight-year-old brother, Billy, wants them both to head from their home in Nebraska to California to find their mother.

Bob Kreisel/Alamy Stock PhotoThe historic Route 30, the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental highway

The problem occurs when Emmett’s adored car, a powder-blue Studebaker, is “borrowed” by a couple of escaped former inmates from the work farm, Duchess and Woolly. They are heading for New York, and lead a fateful chase. Although likeable, Duchess is treacherously untrustworthy, while Woolly, from a very comfortable background, appears to be dependent and rather lost: “There’s a tender sort of soul, who, in the face of such abundance, feels a sense of looming trepidation.”

Towles writes about the thoughtfully centred Emmett and the bright, even precocious, Billy, in the third person, but he narrates Duchess in the first person. This has the effect of making the reader feel closer to, even identify with, the morally dubious straight-talker. It also exposes us to the difficulties of understanding the truer nature of people through both middle-distance observation and, maybe even more so, hearing their own accounts.

The nature of morality is a clear focus of this book. Duchess appears more grounded in the “eye-for-an-eye” approach, his outcast status enabling him to maintain the emotional distance for that kind of moral code. Emmett has a more homespun wisdom, assured, but, nevertheless, looking for assurance.

Several questions emerge from the story. How do the primal wounds of our parents live out their life in us? If we don’t mean harm, but do harm, what is our culpability? If we unknowingly steer another person’s demise, what is on our moral balance sheet? Does the American myth of heroic free will and the pursuit of happiness inevitably hit the rocks of fate and reality? What is served by retribution, and is it the part of the storyteller to divert us from it?

These questions hover in the text, made more provocative by literary references to the adventures of the Odyssey and the derring-do of The Three Musketeers. Perhaps not reaching the intended destination is at the heart of the story’s significance, and that the digressions, sorry sagas, and detours all re-route our lives, and often expose the endless ways in which we fool ourselves by our own map-making and self-promotion.

One of the most enjoyable aspects of this picaresque book is the vast array of characters whom the men encounter. It is tempting to call them “minor” characters, but one gets a strong sense from this novel that there are no such things in our life, that all play their part, no matter how short or seemingly insignificant our crossed paths happen to be.

Readers of the Church Times might have been particularly attentive to Pastor John, who quotes the Bible and preaches the “all-seeing and all-knowing” God, while planning theft, violence, and an evening with “oysters, a bottle of wine and . . . some female companionship”. The Bible is another shield, along with all the others, behind which we can hide our real self with a seeming righteousness.

Comic, expansive, open about the sweetness and malevolence of life’s panoramic sweep, and aware that different voices blend a narrative about us that none of us finally possesses, The Lincoln Highway is compulsively readable. It plays out the early maxim of Ralph Waldo Emerson, that “envy is ignorance; imitation is suicide,” and that we must take ourselves, for better or worse, as our own portion.

The Revd Dr Mark Oakley is the Dean of St John’s College, Cambridge, Canon Theologian of Wakefield Cathedral, and Dean-designate of Southwark.

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles is published by Cornerstone at £9.99 (Church Times Bookshop £8.99); 978-1-529-15764-2.

Listen to Mark Oakley in conversation with Sarah Meyrick in this week’s Church Times podcast. This is a monthly series produced in association with the Church Times Festival of Faith and Literature. Listen here.


THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY — SOME QUESTIONS 

  1. Who is the most appealing character in this book, and why? 
  2. Billy asks: “How long do you need to talk to a stranger before they become your friend?” What would be your answer? 
  3. The panhandler sums up life as “Lovin’ to go to one place and havin’ to go to another.” Is this a good summary and how does faith respond to such a view? 
  4. Duchess reflects that “if it doesn’t matter for most people where they live, it certainly doesn’t matter where they’re going.” How are geographies and aspirations caught up with one another? 
  5. Do you like Amor Towles’s storytelling? What do you make of one criticism that the book is like the highway itself, “lengthy, monotonous, and exhausting”, making the reader keep asking of the end, “are we there yet?”

 

IN OUR next Book Club page, on 1 September, we will print extra information about our next book, Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver. It is published by Faber & Faber at £9.99 (£8.99); 978-0-571-37648-3.

 

THE BOOK

David Copperfield, by Charles Dickens, provided the inspiration for Barbara Kingsolver’s award-winning novel Demon Copperhead. This reimagining of Dickens’s classic work is similar in length and tone, and brings the failings of contemporary society into view. The book is set in the Appalachian mountains of Virginia during the opioid crisis of the 1990s. The central character, Damon Fields, aka Demon Copperhead, lives with his drug-addicted mother in a single-wide trailer up in the mountains. Told from the perspective of Damon, the book chronicles the relentless misery and misfortune of his early childhood and adolescence. Despite his many mishaps, rejections, and betrayals, Damon’s intelligence and indomitable spirit shine through, making the reader champion the character throughout the book.


THE AUTHOR

Barbara Kingsolver was raised in Kentucky, in the Appalachian mountain range in which Demon Copperhead is set. For a brief period during her childhood, she lived in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where her father was sent as a doctor. Her experiences from that time provided the inspiration for her well-known work The Poisonwood Bible, a novel about a missionary family struggling to adapt to life in Africa. As a keen campaigner for social justice, Kingsolver, in 2000 established the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Her novels have won many prizes, and she is the only person to win the Women’s Prize for Fiction twice. The author now resides in rural Kentucky.


BOOKS FOR THE NEXT TWO MONTHS

October: Crossroads by Jonathan Franzen
November: Two Storm Wood by Philip Gray

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