“The Lincoln Highway” by Amor Towles
–by Gail Bishop
Disclaimer: I did not like “A Gentleman in Moscow” and was disappointed to find out the book I ordered was from the same author. But, I loved this novel.
The Lincoln Highway was created so a person could drive all the way across America in one consecutive line. In June of 1954, this highway not only connected all Americans but also four orphans named Emmett, Billy, Duchess, and Wooly. These four boys come from vastly different backgrounds, but the thread between them is both invisible and strong. The novel takes place over ten days and the book is divided into a section for each day. The author also utilized several narrators changing perspective every few pages. Sometimes he even tells the exact same story only from a different character’s point of view.
I honestly don’t know where to start with this novel. I loved so many parts of it. Let’s start with the references to Ralph Waldo Emerson that take me back to teaching American Literature to juniors (most of whom had NO IDEA how totally cool he was). Emmett returns from juvenile detention to find his father dead and his little brother Billy in the care of neighbors. Emmett and Billy’s father struck out on his own to become a farmer but wants Emmett to know he is allowed to choose his own path and need not feel tied to the farm that was his father’s dream. He does this by leaving a page torn from Emerson’s “Essays” with two sentences underlined. “There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide … that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him through his toil bestowed on a plot which is given to him to till. The power that resides in him is new to nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he tried.” Emmett decides to take his father’s advice and head to California where he plans to flip houses for a living but Billy suggests a different path.
The character of Billy is so beautifully drawn. He is insightful and innocent and inquisitive and inspiring all rolled into an eight-year-old bookworm. He is obsessed with a big red book named “Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers.” It retells in eight pages the complicated stories of literary heroes from A to Z (literally he starts with Achilles and ends at Zorro) and Billy has read it 24 times. He sees these heroes and adventures replicated in their travels. For example, he is saved one night by a man named Ulysses who fought in the war only to return home to an empty house. He has spent the last eight years searching for his wife and young son. Billy excitedly informs him he will find his family in two years’ time because obviously, he is Odysseus (also referred to as Ulysses) reincarnated.
Duchess and Wooly were inmates with Emmett and secretly stow away in the trunk of the car that returns Emmett to his home. They are only too glad to join in the adventure but first, they want to go to Wooly’s summer home in the Adirondacks and collect his inheritance that happens to be the opposite direction to California. Duchess is the son of a dissolute vaudevillian actor. He was unceremoniously dumped at the home for boys because his father had a young girlfriend and was tired of being tied down by his son. Duchess often entertains them with recitations from well-known plays like Macbeth (or the Scottish Play as Duchess knows to call it). He also introduces a cast of memorable characters. His father’s drinking companion, Fitz, grows a long white beard for the express reason of getting jobs reciting Walt Whitman’s poetry for the anniversary of “Leaves of Grass.” He is a great success and someone asks if he can also play Santa since both Santa and Whitman sport the same white beard. Now Fitz is on a roll and making enough money to live a luxurious life. That is until someone realizes Santa, Whitman AND Karl Marx all have the same white beard and asks him to read “The Communist Manifesto” at a local gathering. You guessed it … Fitz is canceled by enraged Americans who do not appreciate him espousing communist literature in their town. He spends the rest of his days drinking with Duchess’s father in the local tavern. Duchess has some scores to settle, though, and he ends up creating many hazardous situations in his quest for revenge. Wooly comes from a wealthy Manhattan family but spends his days under the influence of the mysterious medication he carries in a small brown bottle. He is kindhearted and generous (he is willing to split his inheritance four ways) but he gets his nickname honestly as he seems to view the world through medicated eyes. Between the four boys, the adventures are fast and furious and the book is 571 pages long-so buckle up!
I savored a Manhattan in honor of Wooly and you should too: Combine 2 ounces bourbon, one-ounce sweet vermouth and two dashes of bitters in an ice-filled rocks glass and garnish with maraschino cherries.