Amor Towles takes a trip down a lesser-known road in The Lincoln Highway

Amor Towles, off on a road trip. Picture: Bill Hayes
Amor Towles, off on a road trip. Picture: Bill Hayes
  • The Lincoln Highway, by Amor Towles. Hutchinson, $32.99.

Is it as good as Bushells? That unfortunate but unavoidable question must plague every writer who has published a bestseller. The most telling response to the waspish query remains Joseph Heller's. Asked why he had not written anything else as good as Catch 22 since, Heller replied, "nobody else has either".

As for Amor Towles, he published an elegant, witty novel about Manhattan in 1938 (Rules of Civility) before the run-away success of A Gentleman in Moscow. Five years later, Towles is out promoting a new novel, The Lincoln Highway. Having written about an exhausting road trip, the author is now engaged in one of his own, in the form of a book tour.

Critics of A Gentleman in Moscow, and I am certainly not among their number, might claim the book was precious or pretentious, too crafted or too crafty. Although told in the voices of eight different characters, the new book is more condensed (into 10 days) and a little more conventional.

Towles riffs off a few stock American themes. Westward Ho was an English story but an American obsession. A shelf of classics about the dilemmas of Western movement (The Prairie, On the Road, Lonesome Dove, The Oregon Trail, Blood Meridian, The Grapes of Wrath) is neither supplemented nor subverted here. Towles' characters plan to drive west, from Nebraska to California, but end up (after some larceny) travelling in the other direction.

Instead of the accumulated romance and glamour of Route 66, Towles focuses on the much less renowned Lincoln Highway, one which boasts such forgettable stops as Ely, Ogalalla, Rock Springs and Watson House. Rather than set his story in the tumultuous 60s, Towles has chosen placid 1954, when Americans could not know whether developments in their Republic would turn out terribly (Vietnam, the arms race) or triumphantly (civil rights, the highway network).

The last time a young American abandoned the prairies for a dramatic, poignant road trip was 82 years ago, when a precocious girl from a neighbouring state, Kansas, was caught up in a tornado. For Towles' characters, storms - whether externally or internally generated - are of their own making.

Towles' hero has been imprisoned as the result of "the ugly side of chance", having killed a teenager tipped to become "the engineer of a lifetime of shit piles". He promptly loses his father and his family farm but retains his Studebaker car. In 1954 the United States, with 6 per cent of the world's population, owned 60 per cent of all automobiles produced. In American movies much more than novels, the combination of a car and an open road promises liberation, excitement and independence. The end of that road, so to speak, arrived with Easy Rider and Thelma and Louise.

Stereotypes might lead us to assume that Americans in the 50s were less frank, less daring, certainly less liberated, than their children would become in the 60s. Towles invests each of his young characters with a quite distinctive voice, but makes all of them, in disparate ways, literate, allusive and observant.

As the author suggests through one character, "the funny thing about a story is that it can be told in all sorts of lengths". Sadly, the most engaging voice of the lot, a young woman suffering unrequited love, is left behind for a while on the prairies. She catches up.

Along the way, as the picaresque plot unfolds, Towles' youngsters encounter a variety of peculiar, stagey bit players: a panhandler; a drunk in a tuxedo; a pastor; a has-bee, also taken in drink; an actor whose parrot laughs in harmony with him. One charming interlude involves a discussion with a Professor Abacus about the mythic return of heroes.

This is not a modern rendition of Pilgrim's Progress where the chance meetings are used as excuses for moral lessons. The Lincoln Highway is not at all didactic or pointed in its appraisal of motives and intentions. Each character is invested with a quite idiosyncratic moral code.

Towles contends that he re-tools between books, adapting structure and style to ensure, among other things, that his writing is true to the characters, his setting and their period. Count Rostov may have little to say to criminal ruffians from the sticks. Nonetheless, Towles' style (or "poetics", to use a borrow word he favours) is gracious and fluid.

The scaffolding of Towles' writing - extensive research, laborious preparation, a comprehensively structured outline, re-writes - is carefully subsumed in the narrative.

Until we reach its climax, on "a boat with a hole and no oars in the middle of a lake", Towles punctuates the story with frequent whacks with heavy objects to the heads of one character after another. The violence is purposeful but abbreviated, mixed into a quite subtle, subdued tale.

This story Cruising a lesser-known highway first appeared on The Canberra Times.