Notes on the Lincoln Highway

The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

I read this book as a Rivers Faculty & Staff book club assignment. These are my notes.

The Lincoln Highway, a Great American Road Novel by Amor Towles — three 18-year-olds who met in a juvenile reformatory, plus a inquisitive, abnormally smart 8-year-old — journey from Nebraska to New York City in an old Studebaker and is set in 1950’s America. This is a period of peace, prosperity, and upward mobility in the US; a period in which television was in its infancy, and which came just before the advents of rock & roll, the modern civil rights movement, and the “sexual revolution”.

Emmett Watson is driven home to Nebraska in June 1954 by the warden of the juvenile work farm where he has just served fifteen months for involuntary manslaughter.

His mother gone for eight years, his father recently deceased, and the family farm foreclosed upon by the bank, Emmett’s intention is to pick up his little brother, Billy, and head to California where they can start their lives anew.

But when the warden drives away, Emmett discovers that two friends from the work farm have hidden themselves in the trunk of the warden’s car. Together, they have hatched an altogether different plan for Emmett’s future, one that will take them all on a fateful journey in the opposite direction—to the City of New York.

Spanning just ten days and told from multiple points of view, the novel provides an array of new and richly imagined settings, characters, and themes. Each character is the central protagonist of their own ongoing adventure that is both unique and universal. Nothing goes as Emmett intended, but novels wouldn’t be novels if everything went as planned.

The book is about the act of storytelling and mythmaking and probes questions about how to structure a narrative and where to start; its chapters count down from Ten to One as they build to a climax. Spine of the novel is Billy’s obsession with a big red alphabetical “compendium” of 26 heroes and adventurers — both mythical and real — from Achilles to Zorro, though the letter Y is left blank for You (the reader) to record your own quest.

Bil·dungs·ro·man /ˈbildo͝oNGzrōˌmän/ a novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education.

Well, that’s life in a nutshell, ain’t it? Lovin’ to go to one place and havin’ to go to another.” — The panhandler

Eris (/ˈɪərɪs, ˈɛrɪs/; Greek: Ἔρις Éris, “Strife”) is the Greek goddess of strife and discord.

in medias res — in the middle of the thing

600 pages only covers 10 days.

pa·nache /pəˈnaSH,pəˈnäSH/ flamboyant confidence of style or manner or (HISTORICAL) a tuft or plume of feathers, especially as a headdress or on a helmet. From Latin pinna: feather

chantoosie (plural chantoosies) (Canada) A woman employed to sing in a nightclub.

The Lincoln Highway is 3.390 miles long, and it’s the U.S.’s very first cross-country highway. The west end is Lincoln Park in San Francisco, CA. East end is Times Square in New York, NY.

Making a fresh start isn’t just a matter of having a new address in a new town. It isn’t a matter of having a new job, or a new phone number, or even a new name. A fresh start requires the cleaning of the slate. And that means paying off all that you owe, and collecting all that you’re due. — Duchess

Because young children don’t know how things are supposed to be done, they will come to imagine that the habits of their household are the habits of the world. If a child grows up in a family where angry words are exchanged over supper, he will assume that angry words are exchanged at every kitchen table; while if a child grows up in a family where no words are exchanged over supper at all, he will assume that all families eat in silence. —Emmett

haus·frau /ˈhousˌfrou/ noun a German housewife. INFORMALa woman regarded as overly domesticated or efficient.

Emmett was raised to hold no man in disdain. To hold another man in disdain, his father would say, presumed that you knew so much about his lot, so much about his intentions, about his actions both public and private that you could rank his character against your own without fear of misjudgment.

In Greek mythology, Spartoi (also Sparti or Spartae) (Ancient Greek: Σπαρτοί, literal translation: “sown [men]“, from σπείρω, speírō, “to sow”) are a mythical people who sprang up from the dragon’s teeth sown by Cadmus and were believed to be the ancestors of the Theban nobility.

The Spartoi is a legendary warrior sown and grown from a set of Dragon’s teeth. The dragon was a pet of Aries, the Greek God of War, and when sown into the group, these teeth, known as the Spartoi Seed, grew into a full grown warrior known as the Spartoi.

Wasn’t it hard enough in the course of life to distinguish between fact and fancy, between what one witnessed and what one wanted? — Emmett

in·ter·stice /inˈtərstəs /noun an intervening space, especially a very small one.

The City of New York is a thousand cities rolled into one.

Woolly’s sister, Sarah, observes to Emmett: “If you take a trait that by all appearances is a merit—a trait that is praised by pastors and poets, a trait that we have come to admire in our friends and hope to foster in our children—and you give it to some poor soul in abundance, it will almost certainly prove an obstacle to their happiness.”

$50,000 then equals $500,000 now.

pos·it. /ˈpäzət/ past tense: posited; past participle: posited. assume as a fact; put forward as a basis of argument. put in position; place. to dispose or set firmly : fix. to assume or affirm the existence of : postulate. to propose as an explanation : suggest.

postulate /ˈpäsCHəˌlāt/. suggest or assume the existence, fact, or truth of (something) as a basis for reasoning, discussion, or belief. (in ecclesiastical law) nominate or elect (someone) to an ecclesiastical office subject to the sanction of a higher authority. noun FORMAL /ˈpäsCHələt/ a thing suggested or assumed as true as the basis for reasoning, discussion, or belief. put in position; place.

Remembering vs rememorizing — Woolly

raff·ish /ˈrafiSH/ adjective unconventional and slightly disreputable, especially in an attractive manner.

deign/dān/ do something that one considers to be beneath one’s dignity. ARCHAIC condescend to give

…the troubling theory Schrödinger’s cat. In this theory, a physicist named Schrödinger had posited … that there was a cat with some poison in a box in a state of benign uncertainty. But once you opened the box, then the cat would either be purring or poisoned. So it was with a touch of caution that any man should venture to open a box, even if it was one that had his name on it. Or perhaps, especially if it had his name on it. —Woolly

visage to visage face to face

…“everything of value in this life must be earned.” — Ulysses

gyre /ˈjī(ə)r/ verb LITERARY whirl or gyrate. noun a spiral or vortex.

“When it comes to waiting, has-beens have had plenty of practice.” And, there’s “that’s what has-beens do: They wait.” I believe that Towles is making a bigger point about people being the authors of their misfortune by waiting for good things to happen as opposed to doing.

From a Forbes review by John Tammy: “Towles writes Emmett, Duchess and Woolly as though their work-camp misfortune was all the doing of others. Such is the prerogative of fiction novelists, they get to shape the characters in the way they like, but his drawing of them deprived Highway of believability. Realistically there’s no story if Emmett’s a really bad person who had purposely killed someone, but seemingly no one in Highway is at fault at which point we should all be so lucky to be sent off to a work camp filled with such interesting, articulate, and (in Woolly’s case) well-bred inmates. Everyone in Highway is abnormally perceptive, well read, and talented, including those at Salina.”

Are Emmett, Duchess, and Woolly victims of simple bad luck?

I hated the ending. The characters are unrealistic. And I was not expecting so many people to die by murder and suicide. None of the violence was graphic. I still recommend the book. It is an easy read with plenty of cliffhanger chapter endings.

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