By the author of Rules of Civility and The Gentleman in Moscow (which I loved), The Lincoln Highway, Amor Towles’ newest piece of work is sure to entertain. Drawn in on page one (of close to 600 pages), I thoroughly enjoyed spending 10 days with 18 year old Emmett and the others in 1954. After serving time in jail for over a year, the teenager comes home to the family’s farm in Nebraska after his father passed away to take care of his younger brother, Billy. The two boys decide to leave their bullies behind and embark on a journey to California to make a fresh start; Emmett can find work as a carpenter and they hope find their mother by who abandoned them many years ago. With two unexpected stowaways, Emmett’s bunkmates from the jail, Duchess, the son of a vaudeville performer, and Woolly, oddball son of a wealthy family, the journey to the west coast gets off course. Duchess and Woolly want to go to New York to collect Woolly’s inheritance and Emmett agrees to drive them to the train. This detour is the beginning of a series of detours and alterations in plans…these memorable, eccentric characters travel The Lincoln Highway heading east in a blue Studebaker, outrunning their demons, getting even with those who set them back, and collecting what they believe they are owed. Meeting lots of strange characters along the way, the story has a Huck Finn quality that is charming, adventurous and witty and portrays lives of young boys surviving on their own and learning along the way.
The Lincoln Highway is a slice of 1950s America with boys who have been dealt a bad hand taking their chances at survival, relying on friendship, instinct and dreams. Amor Towles doesn’t disappoint with his engaging characters and unique storytelling… surely an enjoyable ride!
If you enjoy reading about boys on adventures, check out The Raft of Stars by Andrew J. Graff.
Q & A with Amor Towles
Reprinted with permission from AT.
Can you talk about the shifting points of view in the book?
When I first outlined The Lincoln Highway, the plan was to describe the story from two alternating perspectives: Emmett’s (in the third person) and Duchess’s (in the first person). This seemed a natural way to juxtapose the two different personalities, upbringings, and moralities of the lead characters—and by extension, two different ways of being American.
But once I was writing, the voices of the others characters began to assert themselves, making their own claim on the narrative, insisting that their points of view be heard. First it was Pastor John and Ulysses, then Sally and Woolly, and finally Abacus and Billy. Now that the book is done, it’s hard for me to imagine it could ever have been told from the perspectives of just Emmett and Duchess.
Can you talk about the structure of the book?
As a novelist and a reader, I’m very interested in the role that structure plays in story-telling. Both Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow were conceived with very specific structures in mind (the former spanning from one New Year’s Eve to the next, and the latter spanning thirty-two years with an accordion-like shape). With The Lincoln Highway, from the first I imagined a story told over ten days.
When I began writing the book, it was laid out in sections titled Day One, Day Two, Day Three, and so on. But when I was about halfway through writing the first draft, I became frustrated. The book was feeling unwieldy, with sections that were cumbersome, slow, or off track. After dwelling for days on the draft’s shortcomings to no avail, I suddenly realized that the book wasn’t simply a story told over the course of ten days, it was a countdown. So, I went back to the beginning and began revising—having renamed the sections as Ten, Nine, Eight, and so on. This helped clarify for me what belonged in the story and how it should be told.
When I renamed the sections as a countdown, I assumed I would eventually restore the Day One, Day Two, Day Three titles. But when I finished the first draft, it seemed to me that the reader deserved to have the same experience while reading the book that I had while writing it: of knowing that the story was not open-ended, but ticking down day by day to its inescapable conclusion.
Having said that you outline your books thoroughly, are there surprises that arise during the course of the writing?
While I’m writing chapters, I am constantly revising the back half of the outline or adding to it, as I gain a better understanding of my story. But I’m also adapting to surprises that surface from the work.
In the case of this novel, the single biggest surprise was the Lincoln Highway itself. When I conceived of the story, I had no idea that it existed. I stumbled across it as I was mapping out the route that the characters were going to take out of Nebraska. Once I learned the history of the highway—and that it extended from Times Square to San Francisco—I couldn’t believe my luck. Almost immediately, the Lincoln Highway reinforced or reshaped a number of the book’s themes and events.
Another fortuitous discovery relates to the photograph that’s in the book. While I avoid doing applied research before writing a novel, I do like to do some research once my first draft is complete to sharpen details or identify new threads for possible inclusion. To that end, when I was finished writing the first draft of The Lincoln Highway, I decided to look at the front pages of the New York Times for the ten days on which my story takes place: June 12 to June 21, 1954. As I was reviewing them, I was amazed by a story on June 14th announcing that all activity in New York City would stop for ten minutes on the following day as part of a nuclear attack simulation. When I turned to the front page for June 15th to see what had happened, there was a photograph of Times Square all but abandoned. That the photograph should be of the very spot where the Lincoln Highway begins seemed a coincidence too great to ignore, so I added the chapter of Woolly reading the old headlines.
Is Fettucine Mio Amore a real dish?
One of my best friends growing up was an Italian-American named Claudio, who lived in Milan. When we were boys in the 1970s and Claudio would come to New England for the summer, he would be horrified by the American insistence upon drowning all pasta in a thick red sauce. A household should serve pasta in twenty different ways, he would argue, and each preparation should highlight a few essential flavors through intensity rather than volume.
Fettucine Mio Amore, the dish that Duchess makes for Emmett, Woolly, Billy, and Sally on their last night together, is an homage to my old friend and a favorite of the Towles family. Here’s the recipe:
- 1/4 cup olive oil
- 1 large or two small onions, halved and thinly sliced
- 1 pound of smoked American bacon, cut crosswise into ¼ inch strips
- 1 bay leaf
- 3/4 cup dry white wine
- 1 teaspoon oregano
- 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 3/4 cup crushed tomatoes or tomato sauce (and not an ounce more!)
- ½ cup chicken broth
- ½ cup parmesan
- Fettuccine, preferably fresh
In a reasonably deep saucepan, cook the onions in the olive oil until soft and translucent, then set the onions aside. In the same pan, fry the bacon with the bay leaf until the bacon is brown but not crisp. Pour off most, but not all of the bacon fat. Add back the onions, the white wine, and let simmer for a few minutes. Add the tomato sauce, chicken broth, oregano and pepper flakes, stir and let simmer another ten minutes. (Add a little more chicken broth as necessary, if the sauce is drying out.) Toss the sauce with the fettuccine and parmesan, then serve, spooning the bacon and onions onto the top of each plate. Serves four.
To see the full interview visit amortowles.com
About the Author:
Born and raised in the Boston area, Amor Towles graduated from Yale College and received an MA in English from Stanford University. Having worked as an investment professional for over twenty years, he now devotes himself full time to writing in Manhattan, where he lives with his wife and two children. His novels Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow have collectively sold more than four million copies and have been translated into over thirty languages.
Rules of Civility, which was published in 2011, was a New York Times bestseller and was named by the Wall Street Journal as one of the best books of 2011. The book’s French translation received the 2012 Prix Fitzgerald.
A Gentleman in Moscow, which was published in 2016, wason the New York Times bestseller list for two years and was named one of the best books of 2016 by the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the San Francisco Chronicle, and NPR.
The Lincoln Highway, which was published in 2021, debuted at #1 on the New York Times bestseller list.
Towles’s short stories have appeared in the Paris Review (#112), Granta (#148), British Vogue, and Audible Originals.
Towles wrote the introduction to Scribner’s 75th anniversary edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night.