- The historical fiction was chosen as the best book of the year by NPR, Time, and The Washington Post.
“There are few things more beautiful to an author’s eye, he confessed to Billy, than a well-read copy of one of his books.”
― Amor Towles, The Lincoln Highway
I could not wipe the smile off my face as I read “A Gentleman in Moscow.” I am a fan of Amor Towles’s craft. I love his storylines, lyrical prose, philosophical twists, and ikigai. I read, underlined, reread, and shared with my friends. To meet him in person at the Huntsville public library fundraiser Vive le Livre a few years back was grand. Towles embodies the soul of an eight-year-old boy who always wanted to be an author. He dips his pen in inkwells of four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance) and seven deadly sins (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth) and outlines his stories.
“The Lincoln Highway,” published on Oct. 5, 2021, is Towles’s third historical fiction, and like his two previous titles, “A Gentleman in Moscow” and “Rules of Civility,” it is a New York Times bestseller. It was chosen as the best book of the year by NPR, Time, and The Washington Post. It will also be made into a TV series with Kenneth Branagh as Count Rostov, the aristocrat in the Tsarist regime who is forced to spend his life in a luxury hotel. I love all three books.
“A Gentleman in Moscow” is my favorite. “Rules of Civility” buzzes with the irrepressible energy of New York. I am planning to read it again on my next drive to the Hamptons this summer. I picked up my hardcover from the public library and read it quickly because there were 44 people waiting in line after me. “The Lincoln Highway” is a wordy tome, despite the fact that it evolves in ten days compared to “A Gentleman” which evolves over 30 years, but finishes at exactly the same moment in time as “The Lincoln Highway).
“The Highway” is about three “18-year-olds” who become friends at a juvenile correctional facility in the heartland of America. The three young men — Emmett Watson, Woolly martin and Duchess Hewett — come from diverse backgrounds, and become acquainted while serving a sentence in a juvenile detention center in Salina, Kansas. Emmett was released early because of his father’s death On June 12, 1954. The warden drives him back home, where he signs over the farm his recently deceased father has lost to the bank. Reuniting with his 8-year-old brother Billy, Emmett plans to head for Texas to apply his skills as a carpenter and start his own business.
In the interim Billy has found postcards from their mother (who left them one night) indicating that she took The Lincoln Highway all the way to San Francisco, and wants to follow her to the west coast to find her. Meanwhile, Duchess and Woolly, two fellow inmates from Salina, have stowed away in the trunk of the warden’s car. They present themselves to a surprised Emmett and propose that Emmett drive them to upstate New York to procure an inheritance that is rightfully Woolly’s. Though Emmett wants no part of the plan, he agrees to drive the two to Omaha to catch a train to their destination. But the plot takes an unexpected turn when during a stop in Lewis, Nebraska, at a local orphanage (where Duchess was offloaded by his con-artist father in childhood).
Duchess steals Emmett’s car and along with it the sum of money Emmett’s father left for his sons. With the help of their friend and neighbor Sally, Emmett and Billy make their way to the train station, where they stow away on an eastbound boxcar headed for New York City. On the train, Billy meets a vagabond, Pastor John who wants to rob Billy and throw him off the train. Billy is saved from his fate by a veteran Ulysses Dixon, who throws Pastor John from the train. Ulysses accompanies the two Watson brothers to New York, where he acts as their guide and bonds with Billy over the story of the Greek king Ulysses.
The plot takes many twists and turns because of the incongruous motives and principles of the main characters. The novel evolves in ten days. Each section represents what transpires in one day. The ten chapters are devoted to multiple characters. The title bears the name of the character whose experience is pulled into primary focus. Most of them are written in the third person except where Sally or Duchess holds the literary microphone. As in “A Gentleman In Moscow,” where the author was inspired by poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, in this book “Amor” draws from the classics: “The Odyssey” and “The Three Musketeers” as he explores themes of brotherhood, friendship, parenting, coming of age, physical violence, racism, emotional abuse of children, incarceration, corporal punishment of minors, and exploitation of a person with a disability.
The story chronicles events in the heartland of America between the Korean War and the Vietnam war. It is the time of rock-and-roll and newly discovered female sexuality vis-a-vis the invention of the contraceptive pill. I think the scene in the orphanage with boys spooning strawberry preserves into their mouths as fast as lightning is terrific as is the one about Billy arranging the postcards from his mother, his silver dollars and reading his copy of “Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers.” One of my favorite quotes is: “Wouldn’t it have been wonderful thought Woolly, if everybody’s life was like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Then no one person’s life would ever be an inconvenience to anyone else’s. It would just fit snugly in its very own, specially designed spot, and in so doing, would enable the whole intricate picture to become complete.”
Amor likes to include real-life people in his books. The protagonist in “A Gentleman In Moscow” was inspired by his own grandfather. He told us that the girl in the yellow dress was Amor’s daughter. Is Billy inspired by Towles’s son or is the wonderful eight-year-old boy with his neatly packed backpack, Towles personified? Is Sally, Towles’s mother, sister or progressive grandmother who made perfect beds with neat, creased edges? Who in Amor’s childhood folded perfect ham and cheese sandwiches in parchment paper. And why did Emmett not return Sally’s affections? Why did he feel “But being grateful was one thing, and being beholden, that was another thing altogether”? I know that I am leaving you with questions but I have more.
What happens to the trio? Do they drive across the Lincoln Highway? Do they get Woolly’s inheritance? Does their friendship survive? What experiences does Billy have? How does his deep admiration of Professor Abernathe’s book and American history help him with his real-life journey? Do Emmett and Sally reconnect romantically? In the end, Emmett and Billy drive away from New York in a newly painted Studebaker with $100,000 between them to begin their lives in California, Duchess is adrift in a lake in the Adirondacks. His share of the money is flying in the wind,… “those who are given something of value without having to earn it are bound to squander it.” Although the author reminds us that “How easily we forget-we in the business of storytelling that life was the point all along.”
With one foot in Huntsville, Alabama, the other in her birth home India and a heart steeped in humanity, writing is a contemplative practice for Monita Soni. She has published hundreds of poems, movie reviews, book critiques, essays and contributed to combined literary works. Her two books are My Light Reflections and Flow through My Heart. You can hear her commentaries on Sundial Writers Corner WLRH 89.3FM.