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With four kids in an old studebaker, amor towles takes readers on a real joyride.

Heller McAlpin

The Lincoln Highway, by Amor Towles

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 .

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.

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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.


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By Chris Bachelder


Amor Towles’s third novel begins with a deceptively straightforward premise. Upon the death of his father from cancer, 18-year-old Emmett Watson is released early from a juvenile work farm in Kansas and driven home by a kind warden to a small town in Nebraska, where he is reunited with his precocious 8-year-old brother, Billy. Facing foreclosure on the family farm and violent retribution from the family of the bully he accidentally killed at the fairgrounds, Emmett has an immediate and stark choice — should he stay or should he go?

His decision to start fresh leads to a second choice — Texas or California? Trained as a carpenter, Emmett seeks a destination with a rapidly growing population where he can make a living flipping houses. After a morning spent in the library with the Encyclopaedia Britannica — it’s 1954 — he decides that California is the more promising place. It’s a sentimental as well as practical choice, home to his mother, who left the family years earlier, sending back postcards from locales along the Lincoln Highway during her journey west.

Young Billy, eager to traverse his mother’s path, proves to be a worthy sidekick for this all-American journey. He wears a watch with a second hand and carries in his Army surplus backpack a flashlight, a compass and a folded road map, along with his mother’s postcards and a well-thumbed compendium of adventure stories featuring 26 heroes, from Achilles to Zorro. From the cherished book, he knows the tropes of the travel tale, the requirements of heroes. California, here we come.

[ Read an excerpt from “The Lincoln Highway.” ]

Indeed, a reader might very well be fooled into thinking that Towles is setting off — westward, ho-hum — along the deeply rutted tracks of our national lore. But glittering California is a delightful trick of misdirection played on both the Watsons and the reader. Not only do Emmett and Billy never make it there, they don’t even advance one westward mile. In fact, over 10 days and 500 pages, they travel about as far away from California as is possible in the continental United States. If you want to make God laugh, Towles suggests, consult the Encyclopaedia Britannica for population statistics, unfold your map, plan your route. Give yourself a tight deadline of July 4, your mother’s favorite holiday. Then say hello to … New York. As it turns out, not reaching the intended destination becomes entirely the point and power of this mischievous, wise and wildly entertaining novel.

Though capable and self-reliant, Emmett is hardly the master of his own destiny. This was clear when the mouthy kid he punched at the county fair stumbled backward, tripped over a cable, struck his head on a concrete block and died 62 days later — “the ugly side of chance,” the warden tells Emmett — and it’s equally clear when he returns home to consider his future. It doesn’t matter that his plan is lawful, well conceived, well researched. In the universe of this novel, grit and integrity and determination matter, not because they get you where you want to go but because they allow you to persist when you’re inevitably blown off course by chance, vicissitude and the disruptive schemes of fellow questers.

About those fellow questers: There were, it turns out, a couple of stowaways, Emmett’s former bunkmates at the work farm, in the trunk of the kind warden’s car. “Ta-da!” says one, Duchess, the resourceful son of a vaudevillian, as Emmett discovers him in the barn. Duchess is a persuasive and original figure, an avenging moral accountant with a ledger of debts to collect (and occasionally to pay). He is the type of person who provides nuanced ethical reasoning before striking someone in the skull with a two-by-four or a frying pan. Or before driving a stolen car to Harlem to demand a beating from a man he once wronged at the work farm.

Woolly, the other stowaway, is a sweet, stunted, “medicine”-addicted naïf from a wealthy Northeastern family. Woolly has been deemed unfit to receive a large family trust, and Duchess and Woolly have in mind an “escapade” to the Adirondacks to retrieve the money from the wall safe of a family home. (And along the way, Duchess hopes to even a few scores, including one with his father.) In need of a car, Duchess and Woolly attempt to recruit the Watson boys as third and fourth musketeers.

Emmett, in possession of a genuine American dream, has no use for an escapade, but he agrees to drive the fugitives to the bus station in Omaha, a couple of hours to the east, a small but manageable setback to his California scheme. (He keeps running the numbers in his head, revising his E.T.A.) Duchess, the novel’s primary agent of chaos and digression, requests a short detour to an orphanage where he used to live. After he breaks in through a window to deliver strawberry preserves to the orphans, he steals Emmett’s Studebaker and, with Woolly, commences escapade.

At this exhilarating point, California vanishes, the novel moves steadily east by car and train, and Towles goes all in on the kind of episodic, exuberant narrative haywire found in myth or Homeric epic. The novel opens wide, detours beget detours, the point of view expands and rotates. As with Zeno’s arrow, contemplated by Emmett at one point, the novel’s many journeys are “infinitely bisected.” Distance is subdivided and arrival deferred. Stories proliferate and intersect, as do characters, who are diverse in many ways, save gender. (The book lacks a prominent female traveler, and readers might wish that Towles had done more with the gendered traditions of adventure and domesticity.) It’s tempting to speak of the book’s cast of minor characters, though one gradually learns that there are no minor characters. Each one of them, Towles implies, is the central protagonist of an ongoing adventure that is both unique and universal.

Duchess, the engine of the book, seeks his father, seeks atonement and retribution, seeks that safe full of money in the Adirondacks. Emmett seeks Duchess and his Studebaker, as do the police. Billy befriends a Black veteran named Ulysses who has been riding trains for years since returning from the war, his homecoming persistently deferred. Abacus Abernathe, the author of Billy’s beloved compendium, is found on the 55th floor of the Empire State Building and coaxed from his narrative perch back into the world. The anthology of journeys is a touchstone for Billy and for Towles, who is out to demonstrate the profound entanglement of story and life, the ways in which each generates the other.

At nearly 600 pages, “The Lincoln Highway” is remarkably brisk, remarkably buoyant. Though dark shadows fall across its final chapters, the book is permeated with light, wit, youth. Many novels this size are telescopes, but this big book is a microscope, focused on a small sample of a vast whole. Towles has snipped off a minuscule strand of existence — 10 wayward days — and when we look through his lens we see that this brief interstice teems with stories, grand as legends.

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March 15, 2023

reviews of lincoln highway

Review: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

reviews of lincoln highway

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles is a big work of fiction about the complicated journey of adulthood.

Towles’ previous book A Gentleman in Moscow published in 2016—I loved that novel and thought it was such a warmhearted tale. It spent two years on the New York Times bestsellers list and wow, what a hard accomplishment to follow. As a result, The Lincoln Highway was met with much anticipation.

I’ve actually owned The Lincoln Highway for months but the size is daunting (588 pages). I was also unsure of the story—18-year-old men on a road trip throughout the U.S. Still, I’ve seen so much praise but also plenty of negative reviews too so I was quite curious to read the story for myself.

And whew, I have so many thoughts. I felt everything from intrigue to boredom at times to absolute shock. This story is not what I expected in the slightest, which made for both an enlightening reading experience but also a bit of a confusing one as well. I go back and forth about what I think overall so here’s my attempt to digest it for you.

If you’ve read the book and would like to talk all things spoilers —head over to my discussion about the ending here .

What’s the Story About

First, I do think calling this novel The Lincoln Highway is a bit misleading. I thought it was going to be a road trip/buddy story that took the reader on the actual Lincoln Highway where I assumed we would visit plenty of small towns on the journey, meet interesting and quirky people and get to the final destination in a big, grand finale kind of way.

That’s not what happens. It is a journey, but more about boys becoming men and trying to find their place in a post-world society in 1954. The Lincoln Highway does make an appearance but two of our main characters don’t even get to really travel on it. Catchy title but not exactly accurate to the story.

We meet eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson as he arrives home to Nebraska from a juvenile work farm where he has just served fifteen months for involuntary manslaughter. His father has passed away and his mother left the family and with the family farm recently foreclosed by the bank, Emmett decides that he needs to take his eight-year-old brother Billy to another state where they can begin a new life.

However, Emmett discovers that two friends from the work farm have hidden themselves in the trunk of the warden’s car who drove him home. In a turn of events, they all began a fateful journey to New York.


We read the story from the third-hand perspectives of Emmett; his brother Billy; Woolly, one of the friends who escaped the work farm and several other characters. But we read the first-person perspectives of Duchess, the other friend who escaped the work farm and Sally, one of Emmett’s friends from Nebraska. It’s interesting that the author Amor Towles decided to shift perceptive like that. I have a theory of why he did that but it’s a bit of a spoiler so I will save it for my let’s talk about the ending article.

It did help having so many characters lend their true perspectives, especially as actions are sometimes different from their thoughts. There’s also some unreliable narration going on as well.

Although, I will say, Emmett is clearly our protagonist where Duchess is something else… to be honest, I wasn’t a fan of Duchess the moment he arrived and I didn’t love reading his perspective. I did not find him charming or misunderstood but more of a nuisance and with him having such a big role, that is one reason I did not love this novel.

That said, I do think the novel could have been trimmed—almost 600 pages is quite long. And there were areas I felt completed dragged and I started to lose interest. I’m not sure why they thought the longer the better as I think a more tighter story would have been stronger.

Much of the novel features Amor Towles in his signature style—warmhearted, big and epic storytelling.

However, the last 60 or so pages really came out of left field for me. When I finished it, my husband asked how it was and I said, “I’m unsure.” Again, it’s a long novel but bizarrely, it almost changes in tone and genre, especially toward the end.

As I write this, it’s been 24 hours since I’ve finished it and I’ve thought about it quite often since then. The more I think about it, I see where there are hints of something a bit more sinister lurking from several of the characters. I do see where the author laid the ground work for what was to happen but I feel the sudden shift was still jarring.

So what are my thoughts overall? I think the book is beautifully-written—Amor Towles really can write a truly masterful novel. But I do feel that the story missed the mark in several areas and I felt it dragged too. I’m still unsure about the tone shift because while shocking, it did not give a satisfying ending. I think this needed either an epilogue or promise of a sequel.

So all in all, I did not love the novel but I didn’t actively dislike it either. Disappointed in some areas but I did enjoy other aspects.

But again, that ending will get people talking so this novel is ideal for book clubs in many ways. For book clubs, check out my discussion questions here . And if you want to talk about the ending specifically, visit my post here.

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Saturday 28th of May 2022

I agree. Enjoyed the beginning but became bored by the end. Far too long.

Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles review – an all-American road trip

Two teenagers pursue a stolen car in this folksy 50s-set novel from the author of A Gentleman in Moscow

T he hero of Amor Towles’s previous novel, the multimillion-selling A Gentleman in Moscow , spent 480 pages cooped up in a posh hotel, unable to leave on pain of death – a luxury lockdown. For his latest, Towles has looked to the open road. Hundreds of miles roll by over the course of The Lincoln Highway, a breezy Bildungsroman meets road trip that suits the Boston-born Towles’s expansive, folksy, anecdotal style down to the ground.

It is 1954, and 18-year-old Emmett Watson has just finished a spell at the Kansas work farm where he was sent after accidentally killing a bully. His father has died, and his younger brother, Billy, is keen for the two of them to head to California in search of their mother, who walked out eight years ago. But there’s a hitch: Emmett’s beloved powder-blue Studebaker has been “borrowed” by a couple of boys on the run from the work farm. Duchess and Woolly, also 18, are driving it to New York City to raid Woolly’s trust fund and settle a few scores. Duchess, though likable and quick-witted, is hopelessly untrustworthy. He leads Emmett and Billy a fine dance across the north-eastern US, with his sidekick, lost soul Woolly, simply hoping for a good meal and a safe home.

Pleasingly, the boys cross paths with a varied cast of characters: clowns, hobos, out-of-work actors, panhandlers, home-makers, hucksters and just plumb ordinary folk. A crooked preacher named Pastor John is the worst of the lot, straight out of The Night of the Hunter , quoting Bible verses even as he plots to steal Billy’s collection of silver dollars. Pastor John represents the ever-present danger of placing your trust in the wrong authority, a matter Towles touches on more generally by including an atomic bomb drill that prefigured the anxiety and mistrust of the cold war.

Beyond the picaresque, there are deeper questions of justice here. Duchess lives by a moral code not far off the Old Testament: an eye for an eye, a whack with a cast-iron skillet for harm done to a friend. Towles delicately links this harsh moral code to the boy’s isolation. Duchess, like the self-justifying Pastor John, is an outcast, and his remorseless debt-settling is frontier justice personified. Emmett, by contrast, grows to share in the societal code laid down not by police or presidents, but by good plain folk in the community, which Towles thoroughly approves of: “The comfort of knowing one’s sense of right and wrong was shared by another, and thus was somehow more true.”

The touches of homespun wisdom, typical of Towles, seemed quirkily sage in the Tolstoy-inspired A Gentleman in Moscow. Here, they can verge on the trite. “How easily we forget,” one character muses, “that life was the point all along.” There’s also a laboured set-up whereby Billy, who happens to be reading the stories of great historical adventurers, meets a man named Ulysses who left his wife and child behind to go to war, and has been wandering ever since. Contrivances such as this detract from the more interesting interplay at the heart of the novel between Emmett, the thoughtful young man who resents the burden of responsibility on his shoulders, and Duchess, the charming chancer who appeals to the wild spirit in us all. Towles has taken a literary risk by writing Emmett’s narrative in the third person and Duchess’s in the first, so that we readers feel closer to the ne’er-do-well than to the good guy. When the full extent of Duchess’s callousness is revealed, it comes as a shock.

With its down-home style and ideas about the lone hero, The Lincoln Highway is pure Americana. Reading it in any other country is like taking a vacation in the Land of the Free: a long, easy, enjoyable if at times hokey ride on a highway filled with adventure.

The image caption on this article was amended on 18 November 2021. The photo shows Salt Lake City, Utah, not Kansas City, Missouri, as an earlier version said due to an agency error.

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The Lincoln Highway

Amor towles.

576 pages, Hardcover

First published October 5, 2021

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The willingness to take a beating: That’s how you can tell you’re dealing with a man of substance.
In the course of our lives, she had said, we may do wrong unto others and others may do wrong unto us, resulting in the aforementioned chains. But another way to express the same idea was that through our misdeeds we put ourselves in another person’s debt, just as through their misdeeds they put themselves in ours. And since it’s these debts—those we’ve incurred and those we’re owed—that keep us stirring and stewing in the early hours, the only way to get a good night’s sleep is to balance the accounts .
There is a time in every man`s education when he arrives at the convication that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of gold, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.
Time is that which God uses to separate the idle from the industrious. For time is a mountain and upon seeing its steep incline, the idle will lay down among the lilies of the field and hope that someone passes by with a pitcher of lemonade. What the worthy endeavor requires is planning, effort, attentiveness, and the willingness to clean up.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar. Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice. Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment. And this above all: to thine own self be true. For then it must follow, as night follows day, that thou cannot be false to any man. Farewell!

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- Questions can be so tricky, he said, like forks in the road. You can be having such a nice conversation and someone will raise a question, and the next thing you know you’re headed off in a whole new direction. In all probability, this new road will lead you to places that are perfectly agreeable, but sometimes you just want to go in the direction you were already headed.
He too had watched as the outer limits of his life had narrowed from the world at large, to the island of Manhattan, to that book-lined office in which he awaited with a philosophical resignation the closing of the finger and thumb. And then this . . . This! This extraordinary turn of events. A little boy from Nebraska appears at his doorstep with a gentle demeanor and a fantastical tale. A tale not from a leather-bound tome, mind you . . . But from life itself. How easily we forget—we in the business of storytelling — that life was the point all along.

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Amor Towles’s ‘The Lincoln Highway’ is a long and winding road through the hopes and failures of mid-century America

On a humid afternoon in June 1954, my parents married in a whitewashed Methodist church in my mother’s hometown in rural south Georgia, rosette windows and palmettos framing the front doors. Vows exchanged, they climbed into a Chevrolet, hood ornament pointed toward a cottage on the Gulf of Mexico. A few black-and-white snapshots capture their honeymoon, edges scalloped, their faces bright and impossibly young. It’s all too easy to peer back at moments from that hopeful postwar era through a veil of nostalgia, even though the economic boom masked darker currents of inequity that would erupt a decade later.

It’s that sepia-tinted tension between aspiration and reality that fuels Amor Towles’s gorgeously crafted new novel. Set in that same month, “ The Lincoln Highway ” charts the cross-country adventures of four boys: Emmett Watson, an 18-year-old Nebraskan farm kid just released from a Kansas juvenile detention center after serving 15 months for involuntary manslaughter; his 8-year-old precocious brother, Billy; and two of Emmett’s fellow inmates, Duchess, a fast-talking swindler; and Woolly, the neurodivergent scion of an affluent Manhattan family — both recent escapees.

‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ is a charming reminder of what it means to be classy

Emmett’s mother, an East Coast transplant, fled the family after Billy’s birth, leaving a trail of postcards as a clue to her whereabouts. His father, deep in debt, has been snuffed out by cancer. Emmett decides to indulge Billy’s fantasy of finding their mother in San Francisco, retracing her trek west along the Lincoln Highway, the nation’s first transcontinental highway, which stretched from Times Square to California. The plan derails, though, when Duchess and Woolly show up unannounced. Emmett reluctantly agrees to give the pair a lift in his Studebaker — “it looked a little like a car that your dentist’s wife would drive to bingo” — but only as far as the bus station in Omaha.

From Jack Kerouac’s “ On the Road ” to William Least Heat-Moon’s “ Blue Highways ” to John Steinbeck’s “ Travels With Charley ,” automobile odysseys are a staple of American literature, but here Towles puts his own engaging stamp on the formula. (He also borrows elements from L. Frank Baum’s “ The Wonderful Wizard of Oz .”) High jinks ensue when Duchess and Woolly make off with the Studebaker, bound for New York, stranding the Watson brothers, who hop a New York-bound freight train in pursuit. En route, Emmett and Billy encounter a cast of technicolor characters: a gin-drunk aristocrat; a grifter evangelist who tries to steal Billy’s collection of silver dollars; and Ulysses, a Black World War II veteran who, like his Greek namesake, is nearing the end of a lengthy journey back to wife and son. They’re not in Nebraska anymore.

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“The Lincoln Highway” deftly shifts between first- and third-person narration. Duchess’s quirky bravado adds a kick, but also reveals an astute humanity; as he notes of his companion, “Raised in one of those doorman buildings on the Upper East Side, Woolly had a house in the country, a driver in the car, and a cook in the kitchen. His grandfather was friends with Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt. . . . There’s a tender sort of soul, who, in the face of such abundance, feels a sense of looming trepidation, like the whole pile of houses and cars and Roosevelts is going to come tumbling down on top of him.”

By contrast, Emmett’s sections, narrated in a close third, are as flat as the plains, largely because he’s something of a cipher, buffeted by twisters of his own making. And yet, Towles binds the novel with compassion and scrupulous detail: His America brims with outcasts scrambling over scraps from the Emerald City, con artists behind the curtain, the innocents they exploit. Towles revels in boxcars, flophouses and seedy bars, the junkyards of failed dreams. As Duchess opines, “When it comes to waiting, has-beens have plenty of practice. . . . Like for the bars to open, for the welfare check to arrive. Before too long, they were waiting to see what it would be like to sleep in a park, or to take the last two puffs from a discarded cigarette.”

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Balanced against this quiet despair is the evergreen spirit of American optimism. Ulysses dares to hope for a reconciliation with his lost family. Billy is convinced that he and Emmett will reunite with the mother who abandoned them. Sally, the Watsons’ neighbor, is a prairie proto-feminist, weary of farm chores, with her own ideas about how the world should work. Examining the dynamics of race, class and gender, Towles draws a line between the social maladies of then and now, connecting the yearnings of his characters with our own volatile era. He does it with stylish, sophisticated storytelling. There’s no need for fancy narrative tricks.

“The Lincoln Highway” is a long and winding road, but one Towles’s motley crew navigates with brains, heart and courage. The novel embraces the contradictions of our character with a skillful hand, guiding the reader forward with “a sensation of floating — like one who’s being carried down a wide river on a warm summer day.”

Hamilton Cain  is the author of “ This Boy’s Faith: Notes From a Southern Baptist Upbringing ” and Contributing Books Editor for O, the Oprah Quarterly, and Oprah Daily. He lives in Brooklyn.

The Lincoln Highway

By Amor Towles

Viking. 592 pp. $30

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by Amor Towles ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 5, 2021

Newly released from a work farm in 1950s Kansas, where he served 18 months for involuntary manslaughter, 18-year-old Emmett Watson hits the road with his little brother, Billy, following the death of their father and the foreclosure of their Nebraska farm.

They leave to escape angry townspeople who believe Emmett got off easy, having caused the fatal fall of a taunting local boy by punching him in the nose. The whip-smart Billy, who exhibits OCD–like symptoms, convinces Emmett to drive them to San Francisco to reunite with their mother, who left town eight years ago. He insists she's there, based on postcards she sent before completely disappearing from their lives. But when Emmett's prized red Studebaker is "borrowed" by two rambunctious, New York–bound escapees from the juvie facility he just left, Emmett takes after them via freight train with Billy in tow. Billy befriends a Black veteran named Ulysses who's been riding the rails nonstop since returning home from World War II to find his wife and baby boy gone. A modern picaresque with a host of characters, competing points of view, wandering narratives, and teasing chapter endings, Towles' third novel is even more entertaining than his much-acclaimed A Gentleman in Moscow (2016). You can quibble with one or two plot turns, but there's no resisting moments such as Billy's encounter, high up in the Empire State Building in the middle of the night, with professor Abacus Abernathe, whose Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers he's read 24 times. A remarkable blend of sweetness and doom, Towles' novel is packed with revelations about the American myth, the art of storytelling, and the unrelenting pull of history.

Pub Date: Oct. 5, 2021

ISBN: 978-0-73-522235-9

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 22, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2021


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Fiction, for Amor Towles, Is an Open Road


by Pat Conroy ‧ RELEASE DATE: Oct. 21, 1986

A flabby, fervid melodrama of a high-strung Southern family from Conroy ( The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline ), whose penchant for overwriting once again obscures a genuine talent. Tom Wingo is an unemployed South Carolinian football coach whose internist wife is having an affair with a pompous cardiac man. When he hears that his fierce, beautiful twin sister Savannah, a well-known New York poet, has once again attempted suicide, he escapes his present emasculation by flying north to meet Savannah's comely psychiatrist, Susan Lowenstein. Savannah, it turns out, is catatonic, and before the suicide attempt had completely assumed the identity of a dead friend—the implication being that she couldn't stand being a Wingo anymore. Susan (a shrink with a lot of time on her hands) says to Tom, "Will you stay in New York and tell me all you know?" and he does, for nearly 600 mostly-bloated pages of flashbacks depicting The Family Wingo of swampy Colleton County: a beautiful mother, a brutal shrimper father (the Great Santini alive and kicking), and Tom and Savannah's much-admired older brother, Luke. There are enough traumas here to fall an average-sized mental ward, but the biggie centers around Luke, who uses the skills learned as a Navy SEAL in Vietnam to fight a guerrilla war against the installation of a nuclear power plant in Colleton and is killed by the authorities. It's his death that precipitates the nervous breakdown that costs Tom his job, and Savannah, almost, her life. There may be a barely-glimpsed smaller novel buried in all this succotash (Tom's marriage and life as a football coach), but it's sadly overwhelmed by the book's clumsy central narrative device (flashback ad infinitum) and Conroy's pretentious prose style: ""There are no verdicts to childhood, only consequences, and the bright freight of memory. I speak now of the sun-struck, deeply lived-in days of my past.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 1986

ISBN: 0553381547

Page Count: 686

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Oct. 30, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1986


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by Pat Conroy




Sure to enchant even those who have never played a video game in their lives, with instant cult status for those who have.

Kirkus Reviews' Best Books Of 2022


by Gabrielle Zevin ‧ RELEASE DATE: July 5, 2022

The adventures of a trio of genius kids united by their love of gaming and each other.

When Sam Masur recognizes Sadie Green in a crowded Boston subway station, midway through their college careers at Harvard and MIT, he shouts, “SADIE MIRANDA GREEN. YOU HAVE DIED OF DYSENTERY!” This is a reference to the hundreds of hours—609 to be exact—the two spent playing “Oregon Trail” and other games when they met in the children’s ward of a hospital where Sam was slowly and incompletely recovering from a traumatic injury and where Sadie was secretly racking up community service hours by spending time with him, a fact which caused the rift that has separated them until now. They determine that they both still game, and before long they’re spending the summer writing a soon-to-be-famous game together in the apartment that belongs to Sam's roommate, the gorgeous, wealthy acting student Marx Watanabe. Marx becomes the third corner of their triangle, and decades of action ensue, much of it set in Los Angeles, some in the virtual realm, all of it riveting. A lifelong gamer herself, Zevin has written the book she was born to write, a love letter to every aspect of gaming. For example, here’s the passage introducing the professor Sadie is sleeping with and his graphic engine, both of which play a continuing role in the story: “The seminar was led by twenty-eight-year-old Dov Mizrah....It was said of Dov that he was like the two Johns (Carmack, Romero), the American boy geniuses who'd programmed and designed Commander Keen and Doom , rolled into one. Dov was famous for his mane of dark, curly hair, wearing tight leather pants to gaming conventions, and yes, a game called Dead Sea , an underwater zombie adventure, originally for PC, for which he had invented a groundbreaking graphics engine, Ulysses, to render photorealistic light and shadow in water.” Readers who recognize the references will enjoy them, and those who don't can look them up and/or simply absorb them. Zevin’s delight in her characters, their qualities, and their projects sprinkles a layer of fairy dust over the whole enterprise.

Pub Date: July 5, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-593-32120-1

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: April 13, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2022


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by Gabrielle Zevin


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reviews of lincoln highway

Booklover Book Reviews

The Lincoln Highway, Book Review: Amor Towles’ heroic dogma

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles is filled with characters that charm but international readers may find the anthemic Americana less beguiling. Read my full review.

The Lincoln Highway Book Synopsis

Two brothers venture across 1950s America to New York in the absorbing new novel by the author of the bestselling  A Gentleman in Moscow.

In June, 1954, eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson is driven home to Nebraska by the warden of the juvenile work farm where he has just served fifteen months for involuntary manslaughter.

With his mother long gone, his father recently deceased, and the family farm foreclosed upon by the bank, Emmett plans to pick up his eight-year-old brother Billy and head to California to start a new life.

But when the warden drives away, Emmett discovers that two friends from the work farm have stowed away in the trunk of the warden’s car. They have a very different plan for Emmett’s future, one that will take the four of them on a fateful journey in the opposite direction – to New York City.

Bursting with life, charm, richly imagined settings and unforgettable characters,  The Lincoln Highway  is an extraordinary journey through 1950s America from the pen of a master storyteller.

( Penguin Books Australia , 2021)

Genre: Literature, Historical, Drama, Adventure

Disclosure: If you click a link in this post and make a purchase, I may earn a small commission.

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After raving over Amor Towles debut novel Rules of Civility , I was very much looking forward to reading his highly anticipated third novel The Lincoln Highway . It is featured in countless Best Books of 2021 lists, and the Amazon Book Review editors even named this their #1 book of the year .

Towles once again displays his skill and dare I say it, devotion to character development. There were multiple characters and descriptions that charmed me.

You’ve got to love that about Woolly. He’s always running about five minutes late, showing up on the wrong platform with the wrong luggage just as the conversation is pulling out of the station.

Now, I was always going to finish reading The Lincoln Highway because Towles hooks you early on setting off a domino-like series of events with menacing portent. But my expectation that this novel only spanning 10-days in the life of its characters would translate to a fast-paced reading experience was misguided.

Alternating perspectives

The Lincoln Highway narrative is told from alternating character perspectives – a literary construct I typically really enjoy. But I found Towles’ decision to use third-person perspective for some characters and first-person for others perplexing to say the least. I suspect it was something to do with ‘reading about heroes’ and a desire to heighten narrative suspense. But this, the numerous side tales and at times laboured moral messaging broke my reading spell on many occasions.

There is a time in every man’s education when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on that plot of ground which is given to him to till. The power which resides in him is new in nature, and none but he knows what that is which he can do, nor does he know until he has tried.

In The Lincoln Highway Amor Towles once again delivers characters that charm. That is his enviable talent. But, whether readers are ‘swept away’ by their story, I think rests heavily on personal experience and philosophical outlook.

BOOK RATING: The Story 3.5 / 5 ; The Writing 4 / 5 – Overall 3.75

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‘ The Lincoln Highway  is a joyride… delightful tour de force .. There’s so much to enjoy in this generous novel packed with fantastic characters’ – NPR.org

‘Towles’ third novel is even more entertaining than his much-acclaimed  A Gentleman in Moscow  (2016)… A remarkable blend of sweetness and doom, Towles’ novel is packed with revelations about the American myth, the art of storytelling, and the unrelenting pull of history. An exhilarating ride through Americana.’ – Kirkus Starred Review

‘With its down-home style and ideas about the lone hero, The Lincoln Highway is pure Americana. Reading it in any other country is like taking a vacation in the Land of the Free: a long, easy, enjoyable if at times hokey ride on a highway filled with adventure.’ – The Guardian

About the Author, Amor Towles

* My receipt of a review copy from the publisher did not impact the expression of my honest opinions above.

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  1. Review: 'The Lincoln Highway,' by Amor Towles

    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

  2. Book Review: 'The Lincoln Highway,' by Amor Towles

    At nearly 600 pages, “The Lincoln Highway” is remarkably brisk, remarkably buoyant. Though dark shadows fall across its final chapters, the book

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    At nearly 600 pages, The Lincoln Highway is remarkably brisk, remarkably buoyant. Though dark shadows fall across its final chapters, the book is permeated

  4. Review: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

    The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles is a big work of fiction about the complicated journey of adulthood. Towles' previous book A Gentleman in

  5. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles review

    With its down-home style and ideas about the lone hero, The Lincoln Highway is pure Americana. Reading it in any other country is like taking a

  6. The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

    Read 22.7k reviews from the world's largest community for readers. The bestselling author of A Gentleman in Moscow and Rules of Civility and

  7. 'The Lincoln Highway,' by Amor Towles book review

    Examining the dynamics of race, class and gender, Towles draws a line between the social maladies of then and now, connecting the yearnings of

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    While The Lincoln Highway, is a very satisfying reading experience, the plotting is far from predictable and it keeps the reader's attention with unexpected


    A remarkable blend of sweetness and doom, Towles' novel is packed with revelations about the American myth, the art of storytelling, and the unrelenting pull of

  10. The Lincoln Highway, Book Review: Amor Towles' heroic dogma

    Bursting with life, charm, richly imagined settings and unforgettable characters, The Lincoln Highway is an extraordinary journey through 1950s