Book Review: The Lincoln Highway

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles | Goodreads
Review This is a tough review to write. The book is unlike any I've read. With roughly a dozen or so characters, some continue throughout, while others seem to pop in and out, such that frankly it is difficult for me to remember who is who. Each chapter is written in the voice of that chapter's main character. There are no quotation marks, and dashes are used to denote the voice of the speaker. One gets used to this unique punctuation style and frankly it is an effective technique.

The gist of the story involves three young men who have been sentenced to a mandatory program in the midwestern U.S. Prison would be too strong a word, but they are not allowed to leave before their required time is completed. Think of it as a juvenal detention sentence they must serve. They represent three very different personalities and characters. The main thread revolves around one of these, a fundamentally good person, sent improperly by a crumb-bum father, with an absent mother, who seeks to take care of his younger brother, a precocious boy for sure. The parents of these young men represent some of the most basically worthless folks ever.

Interspaced inside an ever-revolving cast, there are some vivid and unforgettable scenes. One, with a tornado approaching in the Midwest stands out. Another fascinating concept involves the mental diagram of life starting as a singularity point, expanding upwards in the shape of a diamond, then as some point beginning to close back in for the symmetrical top half of a diamond shape until it closes down and then out at a point once again. The author, Towles, must have an IQ of immense size and scope as he manages to include such a varied world of words and ideas - it is almost endless. But the scope makes it hard to follow the story, although it does, like the diamond shape, eventually coalesce into itself and end with a surprise.

Be prepared to re-read portions of this as it is hard to follow in one "simple reading." Take that as a positive or a negative point. The brilliance is hard to follow.

Jim George
Austin, TX

4 Responses

  1. AH...the beauty of reading such a book on an e-reader - a forgotten character appears, highlight and click on and you get a capsule about them, and one can, if desired, follow the character linearly as they appear in the story. This was the second Towles' book our local book club had read (A Gentlemen in Moscow being the first) and we were prepared for some challenges in reading his novels. We loved both books. Highly recommended.
  2. To me, Amor Towles is one of the most skilled writers I’ve ever read. His first two novels, Rules of Civility, and Gentleman in Moscow, are astonishing and completely deserving of the mountain of accolades they’ve received. Because of that fact I was very disappointed to read The Lincoln Highway. Towles’ craftsmanship and facility with language are evident in the manuscript, but not with the flair and genius displayed by his earlier novels. To me, the pacing is slow, and the story is weak, to the point of being uninteresting. Perhaps my expectations were unrealistic, but Towles is such an immensely talented writer that it was a letdown to find he didn’t measure up to the high bar he had previously set for himself.
  3. Surprisingly the author fails to mention the predecessor of the National Highway (US 40) — the so-called National Rosd, which linked the east coast to the Midwest (Baltimore M DEC to Vandalus , IL). It was established in 1806 during the administration of Thomas Jefferson. Quoting from. “Another of the more famous roads, US 40, follows the same path as the National Road.  The National Road was created by the United States government under the advisement of President Thomas Jefferson in 1806 to provide a route from the settled eastern seaboard into the central part of the country to open up the Midwest for settlement.  It was the first Federally-funded interstate highway which ran from Baltimore, Maryland to Vandalia, IL” The interest I have in the original National Road is that my great,great grandfather walked the National road from central PA to Ohio In about 182l0, settling in the small town of Bladensburg, OH. His grandson,, my maternal grandfather, Cassius Marcellus Clay Houck was born there in 1861 just before the Civil War. You can sense the political leanings of my mother’s family from the name CMC Houck, who was named after Cassius Marcellus Clay, President Lincoln’s ambassador to Russia during the Civil War. [NOT after the boxer!!] CMC Houck was the youngest of 9 children, explaining how I could have a gf born prior to the US Civil War. Also, my mother was over 40 when I was born.
  4. JK James George
    From Anon-1, Thanks (****) to Jim's review of LHWY,, I'm back to reading a little fiction. So tired of modern writers' stuff with dysfunctional families, bickering divorcees, sneaky little sex/gender/racial/political themes running through everything, historical novels that aren't very historical or -- I'll say it -- "Novel". Maybe Oprah and others have muddied up all the fountains. Interesting that Jim decided he liked the unusual punctuation, etc. Faulkner used similar devices, esp. in The Bear, certainly one of my greatest 3 or 4 fiction pieces of all time. Did I select that sometime? Will look it up. And, who might be the master of all--James Joyce--played with punctuation, run-on sentences, abstraction. Who else could come up with a phrase like this to describe what we see when we use our eyes: "The ineluctable modality of the visible." ?? (from Ulysses) I don't understand all that's in the book--I don't think you need to. My wife says E.E. Cummings used even more radical approaches in much of his poetry. I will take her word for it--she's our poet. And here's Cormac McCarthy now saying “I believe in periods, in capitals, in the occasional comma, and that’s it,” “I mean, if you write properly you shouldn’t have to punctuate.”

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