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It would be easy to be riled by the idea of Amor Towles. An investment banker whose debut novel, The Rules of Civility, was released in 2011 to rave reviews and stupendous sales, Towles quit his well-paid day job and settled down to write an even bigger hit, 2016’s A Gentleman in Moscow, inspired by “his experience of staying at luxury hotels”. That novel sold by the bucketload – his first two books have now racked up more than 4m global sales, have been translated into 30 languages, and enable Towles to list his hobbies as “collecting fine art and antiquities”. Perhaps understandably, I picked up his third novel, The Lincoln Highway, with a hint of bad faith. That I enjoyed it despite myself is a tribute to Towles’s near-magical gift for storytelling, his ability to construct a cast of characters at once flawed, lovable and fascinating.
The novel opens in 1954 as the 18-year-old Emmett Watson is being driven through the midwestern emptiness by a prison warden. He has been released on compassionate grounds after serving a little over a year for hitting a boy who mocked his sickly father. His opponent had fallen against a kerb and died, and Emmett was shipped off to a juvenile reform programme on a farm in Kansas. Now he’s back, but with his father dead and the family farm seized by the bank, Emmett must work out how to take care of himself and his precocious younger brother Billy.
The story is told through multiple perspectives and each is as fully realised as the next
Duchess and Woolly – both young men, the former sharply charismatic, the latter a “tender sort of soul” addicted to unnamed “little pink pills” – saw Emmett’s departure from the reform programme as an opportunity. While the warden signed Emmett out, they slipped into the back of his truck and now reveal themselves to Emmett and his brother. Emmett has plans to go to California to attempt to track down his long-lost mother, heading off down the Lincoln Highway that passes close-by his Nebraska farm. The Lincoln Highway is America’s oldest coast-to-coast road: “It starts in Times Square in New York City and it ends three thousand three hundred and ninety miles away in Lincoln Park in San Francisco.” Rather than heading west, though, Emmett is persuaded by Duchess to go east, to upstate New York, where one of Woolly’s relatives was said to have buried a fortune in the woods.
In The Lincoln Highway, Towles gives us what all great road novels give us: the panoramic sweep of the prairies and hills, adventures that seem to spring from the landscape itself, the propulsive rhythm of the road. The novel is told through multiple perspectives and each is as engaging and fully realised as the next. It’s as if the restricted palette of the previous novel – A Gentleman in Moscow was the story of the fictional Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov and his incarceration at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow – has encouraged a rollicking expansiveness here, not only the wide American vistas, but also the narrative, which rambles off down tangents and leaps from one perspective to the next with energetic restlessness. It’s a novel that is as much about the literary history of the American road as it is about the journey itself, and deserves a place alongside Kerouac, Steinbeck and Wolfe as the very best of the genre.
• The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles is published by Cornerstone (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply