Stories about road trips are found throughout history. Many book sites highlight more recent autobiographical examples of the genre, such as On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon, Wild: A Journey from Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed, and Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. However, the most recent novel by Amor Towles brings not only those works to mind, but also more historical examples, classics like Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and, yes, perhaps even Homer’s Odyssey, which has a role in a subplot in this new work.
Road trip books are not solely American in nature, but they have been part of our culture for a long time, probably beginning with the stories of wagon trains heading west. The typical road trip narrative is built around a character or characters trying to figure themselves out, on a personal quest, or seeking to discover something about the country. Those aims are all relevant in the third decade of the twenty-first century, which may have led me to pull this book out of the TBR pile for some summer reading. (*)
The Lincoln Highway (2021), the most recent book by Amor Towles, has many features of the American road trip novel, but it doesn’t become mired in the expectations of the genre. Set in ten days in 1954, it begins when eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson is driven home to Nebraska by the warden of the juvenile work farm in Salina, Kansas, where he has just served fifteen months for involuntary manslaughter. Emmett and his precocious eight-year-old brother Billy are the two characters who set out on the road, with the intention of going to California to begin their lives over after their mother deserted her husband and children, their father’s recent death, and the bank’s foreclosure on the family farm. But other characters quickly insert themselves into the trip, each providing a different perspective as to its purpose and its effect on those involved.
Unbeknownst to the warden, two of Emmett’s friends from the work farm have tagged along in the trunk, “the wily, charismatic Duchess and earnest, offbeat Woolly.” They have a different destination in mind for their road trip and “enlist” Emmett and Billy in their plans…by “borrowing” Emmett’s car while he steps away for a few minutes. Duchess and Woolly head to New York in Emmett’s light blue Studebaker that he had planned to take west, and so he and Billy hop a freight train to New York to reclaim their car, the money that his father left in the trunk as a token inheritance, and their trip. We also meet the Watson’s hard-working neighbor Sally, who has cared for Billy in his brother’s absence and who has a fondness for Emmett; Pastor John, a con man riding the rails who attempts to steal Billy’s silver coin collection; a former veteran, Ulysses, who is wandering the country like his Greek namesake looking for home; and more.
Towles is a superb writer who fills in the characters with style and wisdom. Early on Sally recounts the Biblical story of Martha (the worker) and Mary (the dreamer) when Jesus says, “Mary has chosen the better way.” Sally states simply that “if you ever needed proof that the Bible was written by a man, there you have it.” All of a sudden, you understand who Sally is and what she is seeking to leave. Towles also knows how to bring the reader forward. No one writes a better last sentence in a chapter than Amor Towles.
You simply have to turn the page.
The Lincoln Highway, Towles’ third novel, is a self-described “multilayered tale of misadventure and self-discovery.” The characters end up going in the opposite direction from Emmett’s original intentions, finding themselves in New York City and the Adirondacks. Towles’ much-beloved second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow, demonstrated his writing and storytelling skills, but I was disappointed in his avoidance of real tension and tragedy in that book. That is not a problem with this newest work. The tension is real, and the story takes something of a dark turn near the end.
Even at a hefty 600 pages, I found The Lincoln Highway to be a very satisfying read. Multiple reviewers have noted that Towles once again explores how “evil can be offset by decency and kindness on any rung of the socio-economic ladder.” We learn how a single wrong turn on the highway of life can set you off course for years, but that this misdirection doesn’t have to be forever. We also learn that balancing accounts can be a messy business.
One favorable reviewer makes the following observation:
“How easily we forget — we in the business of storytelling — that life was the point all along,” Towles’ oldest character comments as he heads off on an unexpected adventure. It’s something Towles never forgets.
All of the main characters discover truths about themselves and the world that ring true. What more can you ask of an American road trip novel.
A terrific summer reading choice!
More to come…
Check out these More to Come blog posts on other road trips.
- Not all who wander are lost: The tour (July 31, 2014)
- Observations from the Road: The thankfulness edition at the end of our “Not all who wander are lost” tour (August 19, 2014)
- Travel in order to be moved (August 31, 2021)
- The allure of the pilgrimage (November 10, 2021)
*TBR = To be read