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With four kids in an old Studebaker, Amor Towles takes readers on a real joyride


The Lincoln Highway is a joyride. Amor Towles' new Great American Road Novel tails four boys — three 18-year-olds who met in a juvenile reformatory, plus a brainy 8-year-old — as they set out from Nebraska in June, 1954, in an old Studebaker in pursuit of a better future. If this book were set today, their constant detours and U-turns would send GPS into paroxysms of navigational recalculations. But hitch onto this delightful tour de force and you'll be pulled straight through to the end, helpless against the inventive exuberance of Towles' storytelling.

Like his first two novels, The Lincoln Highway is elegantly constructed and compulsively readable. Again, one of the ideas Towles explores is how evil can be offset by decency and kindness on any rung of the socio-economic ladder. His first novel, Rules of Civility (2011), set among social strivers in New York City in 1936, took its inspiration from F. Scott Fitzgerald and its title from George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behaviour in Company and Conversation. His much-loved second novel, A Gentleman in Moscow (2016), incorporated nods toward the great Russian writers and shades of Eloise at the Plaza and Wes Anderson's The Grand Budapest Hotel. Mostly confined to a single setting — Moscow's luxurious Metropol Hotel — it spanned 32 years under Stalin's grim rule.

Towles' new novel ranges further geographically — from Nebraska's farmland to New York's Adirondacks by way of some of New York City's iconic sites — but its action-packed plot is compressed into just 10 days. The Lincoln Highway, which owes a debt to Huckleberry Finn, revisits American myths with a mix of warm-hearted humor and occasional outbursts of physical violence and malevolence that recall E.L. Doctorow's work, including Ragtime.

Like his first two novels, 'The Lincoln Highway' is elegantly constructed and compulsively readable.

The novel begins on June 12, 1954 and ends on the same date, clearly not coincidentally, as A Gentleman in Moscow. When we meet him, Towles' latest hero, Emmett Watson, has been released a few months early from detention in consideration of his father's death, the foreclosure of the family farm, and his responsibility for his 8-year-old brother, Billy. (Billy has been ably taken care of by a neighbor's hard-working daughter, Sally, during Emmett's absence; she's another terrific character.) The kindly warden who drives Emmett home reminds him that what sent him to the Kansas reformatory was "the ugly side of chance," but now he's paid his debt to society and has his whole life ahead of him.

Shortly after the warden drives off, two fellow inmates turn up, stowaways from the warden's trunk — trouble-maker Duchess and his hapless but sweet protegé, Woolly. (In another fun connection for Towles nerds, naïve trust funder Wallace "Woolly" Wolcott Martin is the nephew of Wallace Wolcott from Rules of Civility.)

Eagerness to discover what landed these three disparate musketeers in custody is one of many things that keeps us turning pages. Expectations are repeatedly upended. One takeaway is that a single wrong turn can set you off course for years — though not necessarily irrevocably.

The Lincoln Highway is, among other things, about the act of storytelling and mythmaking. The novel probes questions about how to structure a narrative and where to start; its chapters count down from Ten to One as they build to a knockout climax. Towles' intricately plotted tale is underpinned by young Billy's obsession with a big red alphabetical compendium of 26 heroes and adventurers — both mythical and real — from Achilles to Zorro, though the letter Y is left blank for You (the reader) to record your own intrepid quest.

Billy is determined to follow the Lincoln Highway west to San Francisco, where he hopes to find his mother, who abandoned her family when he was a baby and Emmett was 8. (The number 8 figures repeatedly, a reflection of the travelers' — and life's — roundabout, recursive route.) Whether riding boxcars or "borrowed" cars, Towles' characters are constantly diverted by one life-threatening adventure after another — offering Billy plenty of material for a rousing Chapter Y, once he figures out where to begin. One thing smart Billy comes to realize: He belongs to a long tradition of sidekicks who come to save the day.

"Most of us shell our days like peanuts. One in a thousand can look at the world with amazement," Towles wrote in his first novel. Of course, Towles is drawn to that one in a thousand. His interest is in those whose zeal has not yet been tamped down by what Duchess (the only first-person narrator) describes, with improbable flair for a poorly-educated 18-year-old, as "the thumb of reality on that spot in the soul from which youthful enthusiasm springs." With the exception of Woolly, the teenagers in this novel are remarkably mature by today's standards, and burdened by cares. But at any age, it's the young-at-heart who are most open to amazement — people like Woolly, who may not be cut out for this world but who can appreciate what he calls a "one-of-a-kind of day."

There's so much to enjoy in this generous novel packed with fantastic characters — male and female, black and white, rich and poor — and filled with digressions, magic tricks, sorry sagas, retributions, and the messy business of balancing accounts. "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.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, The San Francisco Chronicle and other publications.