Review: The Lincoln Highway

The Lincoln Highway, Amor Towles. New York: Viking, 2021.

Summary: A westward trip of two bereaved brothers to start a new life is interrupted when two prison friends of the older brother turn up and hi-jack their plans.

I will say straight out that I think this is one of the best road novels I’ve ever read–leaving Kerouac’s On the Road in the metaphorical dust. Towles allows this journey to unfold rather than pursue the frenetic pace of Kerouac. The adolescent characters have dreams toward which they strive, despite the cards dealt them in life, and while not saints, evidence principles and loyalties not evident in Kerouac’s dissolute young adults who still act the like immature adolescents.

The novel opens in June of 1954 with a warden driving Emmett Watson home on early release from Salinas, a juvenile detention center to which he’d been sentenced for the accidental manslaughter of a young man who struck his head when knocked down by Emmett, retaliating for insults to his family. He has returned because his father had died of cancer, his mother had long ago abandoned the family, and he is the only one to care for his precocious, eight-year old brother Billy. Billy has been looked after by a young neighbor woman, Sally, who has spent her life looking after the men in her life and wants something more.

Emmett realizes staying in his small Nebraska town is not a good idea. He has enemies and a cloud over his head and his father’s farm has been seized by the bank. He envisions a new start with Billy, driving away in his powder blue Studebaker to use his construction skills somewhere that is growing. He thinks Texas, but Billy thinks California, where he hopes to find his mother, based on the trail of postcards she’d sent. Billy has mapped out the route that follows the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway that runs close to their home. They hope to make it by the July 4 fireworks in San Francisco. Billy’s mother loved fireworks, having left the day after a local display.

Their plans are interrupted when two fellow inmates from Salinas, Duchess and “Woolly,” show up on Emmett’s doorstep. They had escaped in the trunk of the warden’s car. “Duchess” was the son of a theatrical performer who betrayed him to the authorities to escape arrest. “Woolly” suffers some form of cognitive impairment requiring medication to keep him mellow. They want Emmett and Billy to drive them to New York to retrieve a $150,000 trust fund that has been withheld from Woolly, that they offer to split three ways.

Emmett will have none of it. He and Billy pack their kit bags (Billy with Abacus Abernathe’s compendium of heroic stories that he has read 24 times already). They plan to drop the other two at a bus station, but Duchess, who always seems to have other ideas, creates a diversion at the orphanage he once lived in, then steals the Studebaker, and with Woolly takes off for New York, with $3,000 that Emmett’s father had left him, stowed behind the spare tire.

Emmett and Billy, nearly penniless, decide to pursue them the only way they can, by hopping a freight train, and the race is on to intercept them in New York, to retrieve the Studebaker, and hopefully the money, and then take the Lincoln Highway from coast to coast, fulfilling a dream of Billy’s. They make it to New York with the help and protection of a fellow hobo, Ulysses, who left his wife and son after the war and has been wandering ever since. Billy, reads him the story of Ulysses from Professor Abernathe’s book, and in a series of events, Professor Abernathe and Ulysses meet, discussing whether this Ulysses might be reunited with his wife as was the Ulysses of mythology. This encounter, catalyzed by Billy, was one of the high points of the book, capturing the arc of failure, struggle and hope each character pursues.

While all this happens, Emmett pursues Duchess and his car. But he’s not the only one pursuing. Sally, fed up with waiting for them to call to say they’ve arrived safely, and fed up with her domestic life, takes off in pursuit of them.

All of these characters are striving against thwarted destinies to make something of their lives. Billy wants to find the mother who left him. Emmett wants to use construction skills to make a life in a new place by re-habbing and flipping houses, not unlike what he’d been doing before prison. Sally is tired of doing for other men and wants to do for herself. Duchess envisions owning a restaurant like one in which he worked. And Woolly? It seems he would string together a life of “perfect days” untroubled by the demands of his station in life. The Lincoln Highway goes both east and west. Sometimes you have to go backward to go forward, as in the chapter numbering of this book. Sometimes, to get to California, you have to go through New York, uncertain whether you will make your way back, but continuing to hope.

Review: Rules of Civility

Rules of Civility, Amor Towles. New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

Summary: The year that changed the life of a young woman in New York, remembered when photographs trigger a flashback twenty-eight years later.

Katey and her husband Val are part of the social elite at an exhibition opening at the Museum of Modern Art in 1966. For the first time, photographs taken by Walker Evans on New York’s subways in the late 1930’s are on exhibit. Among those photos are two of him. One elegantly dressed, a portrait of subdued power. The other, more gaunt in the tattered clothes of a laborer, but with a smile. Tinker Grey. And it brings back the year in between and how Katey’s life changed, beginning her rise from a working class immigrant background.

At the end of 1937, Katey and her roommate Eve decide to do the town for New Years. Eve is from the midwest with high hopes. Katya, now Katey Kontent (accent on the second syllable) is working in a secretarial pool for a New York law firm, living by her wits and struggling to make ends meet, but also enjoying the city. They are in a jazz club and in walks Tinker Grey in a cashmere coat. They end up ringing in the New Year, and Tinker leaves his monogrammed lighter behind, giving them a chance to see him again. A subsequent night on the town ends in an accident leaving Eve with leg injuries and a scar. Tinker offers his home to recover. They fall in love, and Katey is nudged out.

It’s a story that traces Katey’s year of 1938 in her voice, one that is whip-smart and shrewd. Both her external and internal dialogue make this book, a feat for a male writer. We see her rise from the secretarial pool to editorial assistant for a new magazine launched by the publisher of Conde’ Nast. She recounts the nights at the clubs, the jazz of the Thirties, and her relationships with Wallace Wolcott and Dicky Vanderwhile, the latter on the rebound from one with Tinker Grey after Eve refused to marry him and went to Hollywood. One of the most interesting characters is Anne Grandyn, whose wealth helped make Tinker. She made him in other ways, and unbeknownst to Katey, helps make her as well. Instead of being a rival for Tinker, in an odd way, she is an ally.

Meanwhile Tinker’s life unravels. From Central Park, he moves to a flop house, in some ways following his late artist brother–and hence that second picture in the gallery. And yet the move in his life is from a learned upper crust civility, schooled by George Washington’s The Rules of Civility to rediscovery of the New York he loved best.

Not only does Towles do a masterful job at writing in a woman’s voice, he captures the resurgence of New York on the eve of World War Two as the country climbed out of the Depression. He explores questions of class and upward mobility. Both Tinker and Katey rise from modest beginnings on their wits, yet come to different ends. We wonder if the 1966 Katey, confronted with the images of Tinker, wonders about the life she’s embraced. Or perhaps she was reminded of the year in which her life turned, the gains and the losses, and the course that was set.

I went back to read this after reading Towles’s masterful A Gentleman in Moscow earlier this year. It is hard to believe this is a first novel. So often, we just live our lives. In both of Towles’s works, we see characters who not only live their lives, but, through circumstances, are brought to reflect upon their course and what they’ve meant, inviting the reader to do the same.

Review: A Gentleman in Moscow

A Gentleman in Moscow, Amor Towles. New York: Penguin, 2019.

Summary: Count Rostov has been sentenced to house arrest in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol for life during Stalin’s regime and must find purpose for life within its confines.

Count Alexander Rostov, born to nobility and refinement, has become the enemy in Stalinist Russia. On the pretense of a few lines in a poem, he is tried for his life in 1922, but spared death for a life of house arrest in the place he has made his home, the Hotel Metropol. Not entirely a bad fate. At least he has his luxury suite and all his books and the refinements of life. Not so, he learns, for this, too, has been appropriated by the State. He is confined to a top floor garret, little more than a closet. His life becomes forfeit the day he steps beyond the Metropol’s confines.

How will he face a life confined within the walls of this hotel, the tiny confines of a room? How far will the equanimity and cultured refinement take him when his life is a round of meals, conversations with hotel staff, and long hours in his room? Will he go crazy, or suicidal, or attempt escape? It matters little to Mother Russia, for whom he has become a non-person.

A Gentleman in Moscow traces the next 32 years of his life. We see him in the depths and at his most unpretentious, romping with nine year-old Nina of the yellow outfits, exploring the hidden corridors of the hotels, splitting out the seat of his pants to be repaired over and over by the seamstress, Marina. He becomes the trusted friend to whom she entrusts her daughter Sophia, supposedly for a few weeks which turn into forever. By then he has taken a position as waiter at the Boyarsky, rising to headwaiter, with Andrey the maitre d’ and Emile the chef, the triumvirate of the Boyarsky. He coaches a rising Russian party figure on the ins and outs of western culture, a man whose business is to know everything about people like Rostov. He encounters an American operative at the bar. He lives under the jealous eye of the Bishop (Leplevsky) who has it out for him.

He is the gentleman whose grace wins him the friendship of all, save the Bishop, and the love of his adoptive daughter Sophia, a budding piano prodigy. He discovers that his life is not merely the inner life of equanimity characterized in Montaigne’s words, “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to oneself.” He also learns what it means to belong to his friends, who enrich and guard his life. He remains loyal to his writer friend Mishka, and experiences unexpected loyalty from Osip, the Russian party man, at a moment of extreme need. He lives a life in full in within the confines of his house arrest, exchanging the grand life in society for the pleasures of food well prepared and well served to guests well seated.

It seems that many have been drawn to this book in pandemic times, under the conditions of our own house arrests. We’ve struggled to live and found new ways of living under stay at home orders. Or we’ve chafed at them and put our lives at risk, as the Count would have in departing the Hotel Metropol. As we consider the ways the Count copes and thrives in his house arrest, we’re invited to consider how well we have coped, and how then will we live in the months that remain until our return to whatever new normal follows.