Lincoln Highway, by Amor Towles Report

09 June 2023 Book Group Meeting Report

In its last meeting of the year, on 9 June 2023, the AWG Book Group considered the novel Lincoln Highway, by Amor (pronounced Ay-more) Towles. Towles, now 58, grew up in Boston, attending Yale University and receiving an MA from Stanford in English. His original plan was to teach in China on a two-year fellowship from the Yale China Association, but that was a victim of Tiananmen Square, so he went to work in finance in New York City instead.

His first novel, Rules of Civility, did so well that he retired from finance to write full time. His other two novels are A Gentleman in Moscow and Lincoln Highway, and all have been bestsellers and received critical acclaim. Many in the group had read more than one of these novels; all preferred A Gentleman in Moscow. Some complained that Lincoln Highway was unbearably long, over 1000 pages. Towles brings features from previous novels into this one. For example, the uncle of one of the characters was featured in Rules of Civility, and his watch turned up in this book. And despite the fact that A Gentleman in Moscow and Lincoln Highway covered different time spans, 30 years vs 10 days, they both ended on exactly the same second, 21 June, 1954, midnight in Moscow and 5 pm in New York.

The plot, which was characterized as a coming of age story, like Huckleberry Finn,  features “Four Musketeers,” three of whom had met at a reform farm. The fourth, Billy, was the eight-year-old brother of the main character, Emmett Watson. All agreed that Billy was the star of the book, aided by his “Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travellers,” by Abacus Abernathe, which he used as a resource to relate life’s lessons to his friends and acquaintances. 

The Lincoln Highway, now an obsolete 2 lane road, was epic when it was built, as it connected the east-west route from New York Times Square to San Francisco. And it connects the events in this book. As the book opens, Emmett and Billy started out to go west on the highway to California to find their mother and to make a living by “flipping” houses. Instead, because of the intervention of Duchess and Woolley, they went east to New York instead, and the book ends with them still in New York City, aiming for California once again after many unbelievable adventures.

We agreed that the characters were well drawn, but there was much discussion about the few female characters in this book and whether this was a reflection of the times in 1954 for 18-year-old boys, or indicative of Towles’s mindset. In fact, in all three of his novels, the mother of the main character is absent, either because of early death, or abandonment, and this seemed to recur too often to be just a coincidence.

The ending also drew a lot of discussion. Did the characters foresee that their actions would lead to death? And, in fact, did the Duchess really die? Some thought Towles might resuscitate him for a sequel.