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Amor Towles' new novel winds through the hopes and failures of mid-century America

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The Lincoln Highway

By Amor Towles

Viking. 592 pp. $30

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On a humid afternoon in June, 1954, my parents married in a whitewashed Methodist church in my mother's hometown in rural south Georgia, rosette windows and palmettos framing the front doors. Vows exchanged, they climbed into a Chevrolet, hood ornament pointed toward a cottage on the Gulf of Mexico. A few black-and-white snapshots capture their honeymoon, edges scalloped, their faces bright and impossibly young. It's all too easy to peer back at moments from that hopeful postwar era through a veil of nostalgia, even though the economic boom masked darker currents of inequity that would erupt a decade later.

It's that sepia-tinted tension between aspiration and reality that fuels the gorgeously crafted new novel by Amor Towles (who also wrote "A Gentleman in Moscow"). Set in that same month, "The Lincoln Highway" charts the cross-country adventures of four boys: Emmett Watson, an 18-year-old Nebraskan farm kid just released from a Kansas juvenile detention center after serving 15 months for involuntary manslaughter; his 8-year-old precocious brother, Billy; and two of Emmett's fellow inmates, Duchess, a fast-talking swindler; and Woolly, the neurodivergent scion of an affluent Manhattan family — both recent escapees.

Emmett's mother, an East Coast transplant, fled the family after Billy's birth, leaving a trail of postcards as a clue to her whereabouts. His father, deep in debt, has been snuffed out by cancer. Emmett decides to indulge Billy's fantasy of finding their mother in San Francisco, retracing her trek west along the Lincoln Highway, the nation's first transcontinental highway, which stretched from Times Square to California. The plan derails, though, when Duchess and Woolly show up unannounced. Emmett reluctantly agrees to give the pair a lift in his Studebaker — "it looked a little like a car that your dentist's wife would drive to bingo" — but only as far as the bus station in Omaha.

From Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" to William Least Heat-Moon's "Blue Highways" to John Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley," automobile odysseys are a staple of American literature, but here Towles puts his own engaging stamp on the formula. (He also borrows elements from L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.") Hijinks ensue when Duchess and Woolly make off with the Studebaker, bound for New York, stranding the Watson brothers, who hop a New York-bound freight train in pursuit. En route, Emmett and Billy encounter a cast of technicolor characters: a gin-drunk aristocrat; a grifter evangelist who tries to steal Billy's collection of silver dollars; and Ulysses, a Black World War II veteran who, like his Greek namesake, is nearing the end of a lengthy journey back to wife and son. They're not in Nebraska anymore.

"The Lincoln Highway" deftly shifts between first- and third-person narration. Duchess' quirky bravado adds a kick, but also reveals an astute humanity; as he notes of his companion, "Raised in one of those doorman buildings on the Upper East Side, Woolly had a house in the country, a driver in the car, and a cook in the kitchen. His grandfather was friends with Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt ... There's a tender sort of soul, who, in the face of such abundance, feels a sense of looming trepidation, like the whole pile of houses and cars and Roosevelts is going to come tumbling down on top of him."

By contrast, Emmett's sections, narrated in a close third, are as flat as the plains, largely because he's something of a cipher, buffeted by cyclones of his own making. And yet, Towles binds the novel with compassion and scrupulous detail: his America brims with outcasts scrambling over scraps from the Emerald City, con artists behind the curtain, the innocents they exploit. Towles revels in boxcars, flophouses and seedy bars, the junkyards of failed dreams. As Duchess opines, "When it comes to waiting, has-beens have plenty of practice ... Like for the bars to open, for the welfare check to arrive. Before too long, they were waiting to see what it would be like to sleep in a park, or to take the last two puffs from a discarded cigarette."

Balanced against this quiet despair is the evergreen spirit of American optimism. Ulysses dares to hope for a reconciliation with his lost family. Billy is convinced that he and Emmett will reunite with the mother who abandoned them. Sally, the Watsons' neighbor, is a prairie proto-feminist, weary of farm chores, with her own ideas about how the world should work. Examining the dynamics of race, class and gender, Towles draws a line between the social maladies of then and now, connecting the yearnings of his characters with our own volatile era. He does it with stylish, sophisticated storytelling. There's no need for fancy narrative tricks.

"The Lincoln Highway" is a long and winding road, but one Towles' motley crew navigates with brains, heart and courage. 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."

 

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