Coined by John William De Forest in an 1868 essay, the Great American Novel, as many academics now posit, hasn’t yet been written. There have been some standout contenders such as “Moby Dick” (1851), “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (1852), and “Huckleberry Finn” (1884), to name a few. And let’s not forget “The Great Gatsby” (1925).
When I finished reading Amor Towles’s “The Lincoln Highway,” a sweeping, episodic, and exuberant novel, I let out a soft sigh, contemplating whether this rollicking read would qualify for the lofty title.
Certainly it embodies many themes that speak to the nature of the American spirit—big themes such as family, friendship, honor, tradition, duty, and justice. Its characters are gutsy, freedom-seeking, riddled with flaws and strengths, and ultimately after the greater good even though their definitions of exactly what that is may differ. Their efforts can be seen as entrepreneurial, the stuff of dreams, emotionally charged yet full of wisdom and insight.
Set in 1950s America, an aura of optimism prevails in the country. The story focuses on the lives of four young men and their respective missions. Hailing from different backgrounds and often sad stories, they set out on a journey of renewal and fresh starts, but their individual roadmaps have dizzying alternative routes that take them physically, emotionally, and spiritually in a myriad of directions.
Emmett and Billy seek their mother and the security of a place to call their own. Duchess and Woolly are more cash conscious as they seek a purported treasure in the Adirondacks. Complicating things, their settling of accounts has more than money involved. All are looking for love and acceptance. Choices and consequences loom large in their Homeric quests.
Towles’s narrative of their daily environments is vividly described. Scenes are infused with nostalgia for an era rich in optimism, even for these young boys making their way on their own. Their naivete is heartwarming, and their mischief-making at times mean-spirited. The action is jam-packed, from the seat of a 1948 Studebaker Land Cruiser or riding the rails. The space between the pages comes alive with a host of supporting characters that lend charm, curiosity, or chaos, depending on the chapter.
Multilayered in literary style (the story is told in a variety of voices), major themes are interlaced with a host of other fascinating themes that run through the novel like the threads on the back of a tapestry—seemingly a mess until you see the intricate and unique design on the other side.
As an example, blindly trusting authority figures is a question mark for Towles. Pastor John is the embodiment of a bad soul complete with a repertoire of biblical rhetoric to charm the innocent. For young Billy, he would seem a man to trust, but Pastor John has more mercenary motives in mind.
Speaking of Billy, he’s the youngest of the four main protagonists, and yet his unwavering faith in the goodness of the human condition has perhaps the most influence on the others. While not directly stated in the book, I see him as a child prodigy for his accumulation and application of knowledge, quick wits, and keen sense of resourcefulness. His undying and unconditional love for his older brother is a cherished and admirable quality and without fault.
While Towles’s best-selling “The Gentleman in Moscow” takes you lavishly inside a luxury hotel, “The Lincoln Highway” spreads its wings on an unforgettable journey on the road.
It’s a hefty read at nearly 600 pages, but the pages turn quickly, mirroring the often frenetic movements of the characters inside.
Towles’s tour de force will have readers pulled in for a joyride of ups and downs. There are times when you’ll feel like you are at the top of a roller coaster as it’s about to take a nosedive, hanging on to your seat and hoping for it to rise, and that you’ll still be buckled in.
There is much to enjoy in this propulsive novel with its mesmerizing images, classical references, captivating characters, plots and subplots, and a road trip like no other.
Masterful and ingenious storytelling at its best, in my estimation.
A Great American Novel? Perhaps.
But it’s certainly a major contender and worth the reading ride.
‘The Lincoln Highway”
By Amor Towles
Viking, 2021, 592 pages