The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles: A 1950s American odyssey

Cover image for The Lincoln Highway by Amor TowlesI loved Amor Towles Rules of Civility but, for some reason that I can’t now remember, could not get on with A Gentleman in Moscow at all. That didn’t stop me from putting my hand up for a proof of The Lincoln Highway whose stylish jacket seemed to offer the prospect of a road novel, long enough to sink into. Towles’ book turned out to be a 1950s American odyssey which takes three young men and an eight-year-old boy on a series of adventures beginning in Nebraska. It’s a chunkster, but never a baggy one.

Most people need a ladder and a telescope to make sense of two plus two. That’s why it’s usually more trouble than it’s worth to explain yourself. But not Emmett

Seventeen-year-old Emmett has been released early from Salina, the youth detention centre where he was sentenced to spend eighteen months for involuntary manslaughter. His father has recently died deeply in debt but Emmett has a plan. Having found himself a job with the local carpenter, he’d saved enough money to buy a Studebaker and gained sufficient skills to set himself up fixing-up houses before his detention, his eyes set on Texas. Eight-year-old Billy has other ideas, having found the postcards their mother sent after she left them when he was a baby, hidden in a drawer by their father. Billy is convinced she’s in San Francisco and is sure they’ll find her at the July 4th celebrations, travelling there along the Lincoln Highway which crosses the country from east to west. All he needs to do is persuade Emmett. Then Duchess and Woolly turn up, friends of Emmett and newly escaped from Salina. Duchess also has a plan which involves enabling Woolly to get his hands on the money held in trust for him at his wealthy family’s camp in New York State, the opposite direction to San Francisco. So begins a series of adventures worthy of Professor Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers, Billy’s treasured guide for life, including a meeting with the great man himself.

Ah, I thought, seeing the corner of the book poking out from the folds of his sheets. I should have known. The poor old chap, he suffers from the most dangerous addiction of all  

Towles’ novel is a gripping, hugely entertaining take on the Odyssey, full of suspense, with a cast of engaging characters of which Billy is the undoubted star. Child characters are a tough act to pull off but Billy is a delight: resourceful, intelligent, determined and brave. You’d do well to have him on your side in a tight spot. Towles switches back and forth between his four main protagonists, telling their backstories as he does so while spinning a host of other gloriously vivid tales, with the occasional interpolation from minor characters – I particularly enjoyed Sally’s voice, furious at being taken for granted by her father for years and determined that Billy has a bath once she catches up with him. Towles’ story is full of cliffhangers and includes some enjoyable hat tips to the original Odyssey, all served up with a hefty dose of humour and a touch of tragedy. Should you be looking for a winter read to tuck yourself up with and escape the world, I’d recommend it.

Hutchinson Heinemann: London 9781786332523 400 pages Hardback

32 thoughts on “The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles: A 1950s American odyssey”

  1. Just another reminder to get on and read the original, so many novels are inspired by it. This sounds a great winter read, I’ve not read him before having hesitated on his previous work. This sounds more adventurous.

  2. Yaknow, I can certainly think of some in-credible child narrators but it seems to me that, in recent years, there have been so MANY good ones, that we might need to retire that idea of their being a weak-point. Maybe we’ve all been scarred by that deluge of ’90s-oh-poor-me-suffering-children novels and can’t escape the memory of reading them all… 😉

  3. This sounds excellent Susan. I loved both his earlier works & read the Odyssey way back in high school. Now I’m very eager to read ‘Lincoln’ but will wait until it’s issued in paperback and hopefully read it in the spring or summer under a big tree.

  4. Ooh now you have me anxiously checking and re-checking my reservation at the library to find out when it might be my turn. Having tried (and failed) with some novellas recently I’m in the mood for a darn good yarn

  5. I haven’t read Towles, though heard good things. I’m not sure if I have ever read a road novel before either. Probably not in the market for a chunkster at the moment but it does sound good.

  6. Sounds great and happily I already possess a copy! Can’t wait to get to it – I found A Gentleman too static with its one setting throughout, so an odyssey is very appealing…

  7. I think this is going to be a popular book this fall/winter. Sounds perfect for a cozy weekend in front of the fire. And I do like a good child narrator. I’m reading one right now in Miriam Toews’ new novel.

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