Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Lincoln Highway, by Amor Towles: Growing Pains, Trains, and Automobiles

I guess it makes sense that one of our best pure storytellers would get around to writing a story where the major through-line is storytelling. That's what we have here in Amor Towles' third novel, The Lincoln Highway. On the surface, this is part coming-of-age story and part PG version of On The Road. But really, it's an homage to how stories are constructed, told, read, and enjoyed. Stories are part myth, part fact, part-real life, part pure imagination. At least that's how they are in their ideal state. And Towles very much wants us to read The Lincoln Highway thusly.

It works. Of course it works. With a storyteller of Towles' caliber, it almost couldn't not work. But this is also a story that is sort of in love with its cleverness, its wholesomeness, and its penchant for winking at you, like your grandfather who has just slipped you a cookie before dinner. You may not think that's a bad thing. And I don't either, frankly. You'd have be a giant cynic to think those are bad qualities in a piece of literature. 

But as I am looking back on this novel, I can't quite put my finger on why I liked it, but didn't LIKE IT like it. I think maybe it's enjoying the wink so much that I'd almost have to close the covers and roll my eyes at it (behind its back of course, lest I hurt it's feeling!). Like it's almost too much. It is possible to have TOO many cookies before dinner.

Maybe all this is beside the point. Because really, this is just a rippin' good yarn. It's 1954, and 18-year-old Emmett and his curious, bookish little brother Billy, plan to head out from their failed Nebraska farm to find their mother in San Francisco. Their father has just died, and Emmett has just been released from a stint in juvie after he punched a kid for insulting his family (the kid died when he fell and hit his head). But a couple of interlopers have stowed away in Emmett's ride back to his farm and now insinuated themselves into Emmett's plans. Woolly and Duchess have their own plan: Borrow Emmett's car, drive to upstate New York, and recover a $150,000 trust fund Woolly's rich family has left him. 

Emmett wants no part in this scheme. But when the two "borrow" his car, he and Billy have no choice but to head east to try to recover it. Adventure, a wide cast of characters, and a novel brimming with almost kitschy Americana ensues.

So even though I felt like a little something was missing that would've moved this novel over the good-to-great hump, I still thoroughly enjoyed reading it. To read Amor Towles is to be as delighted reading as he seems to be writing. To me, this was more in the category of his first novel, Rules of Civility than his brilliant and massively successful second novel, A Gentleman In Moscow. But overall, I think readers generally and Towles fans specifically will be more than happy with this new novel.

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