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'Lincoln Highway' is set in the 1950's landscape of highways and railways


Kirkus Reviews calls Amor Towles' new novel, "The Lincoln Highway," a remarkable blend of sweetness and doom. The author of the bestselling and highly acclaimed "A Gentleman In Moscow" has written a road story that diverges along two different roads in between a bright red Studebaker and a freight train, set in the early 1950s landscape of America's highways, railways and dreams.

Amor Towles joins us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

AMOR TOWLES: Thank you for having me, Scott. It's a pleasure.

SIMON: Let me ask you about Emmett Watson, at the center of your story. He's just released from a juvie work farm. His father's died, and he has to take care of his little brother, Billy. But then there's a man from the bank to welcome him home, isn't there?

TOWLES: Yes. The notion of the story is - right from the beginning for me was sort of an image of an honorable young man returning to a family farm driven by the warden after he's served time for really what was an accident. His father has passed away while he was doing time and - to find that the farm is being foreclosed upon. And he has to basically start his life fresh. Unbeknownst to him, two friends from the juvenile work farm have hidden themselves in the trunk of the warden's car. And so when the warden drives away, they present themselves, and his plans to take his brother and head west are subverted by the very different plans that his friends have hatched for him.

SIMON: These are Woolly and Duchess that - we should explain. And yeah, and help us understand the kind of tug of war that ensues between - Billy and Emmett want to see their mother in San Francisco. Woolly and Duchess think they can find a buried treasure.

TOWLES: Emmett's 18. And Billy is only 8. And around the time that Billy was born, their mother really decided that she'd basically - had to move on. But when the father dies, young Billy discovers that their mother had sent eight postcards to the two boys. And those postcards were from eight different stops along the Lincoln Highway, the first highway to cross America. And it spans from Times Square in New York City all the way to San Francisco. The 8 year old is convinced that this gives a map for the two brothers to now go and find their mother after all these years. But meanwhile, Woolly is from the upper-class - New York City family. And he was given a trust. So Duchess and Woolly have hatched a plan to head back East to reclaim this money, which was left to Woolly when his grandfather died.

SIMON: I wonder if I can get you to read a section which I loved. In part, it reminded me of Kerouac and Nabokov both writing about moving across America. It's a section in which Woolly is trying to distract them by listening to a radio - the car radio - which turns out to be a kind of time capsule of America.

TOWLES: (Reading) For a few seconds, Woolly gave the radio his full attention. With his eyes narrowed and his tongue between his teeth, he moved that little orange needle slowly across the spectrum until he could hear the faintest hint of a signal. Then slowing even further, he would let the signal gain in strength and clarity until he suddenly came to a stop at the incidence of perfect reception. The first signal Woolly landed on was a country music station. He was playing a number about a cowboy on the range who'd either lost his woman or his horse. Before I could figure out which, Woolly had turned the dial.

(Reading) Next up was a crop report coming live to us all the way from Iowa City, then the fiery sermon of a Baptist preacher, then a bit of Beethoven with all the edges sanded down. When he didn't even stop for "Sh-Boom, Sh-Boom" I began to wonder if anything on the radio was going to be good enough. But when he tuned in to 1540. A commercial for a breakfast cereal was just beginning. Letting go of the knob, Woolly stared at the radio, giving the advertisement the sort of attention that one would normally reserve for a physician or a fortuneteller. And so it began.

SIMON: I love that section. You got a group of people in that car who are just discovering something. They seem like mundane details to us - mundane details from the past. And yet for them, it kind of makes the world they want to see come alive.

TOWLES: We all have had the experience that when we are driving, when we're in a journey of any kind, what we're paying attention to shifts dramatically from our normal daily life, right? We automatically see the world a little bit differently. Parts of it we see more closely. Parts of it sort of fade into the distance as we're moving towards whatever our destination is.

SIMON: The young people in this novel absorb so many things - what they read, what they see, what they hear - and that they're at the age where those impressions last for life. Young people today - and I don't want to sound cranky about this - but they are being bombarded and seeking out more than ever. Should we worry about all that's being absorbed today? Will it last, or should we hope it doesn't?

TOWLES: It's a very tough question. And I have two teenagers of my own. The way I think of it - and I think it's - this is a very central theme in this particular book - is that between the age of, call it, 0 and 16, we are constantly receiving information that shapes us. But suddenly, around the age of 17, 18, 19, we start reflecting on all the things we receive - some of which we are willing to accept, some of which we reject. But certainly one of the biggest threads of this influence that comes into us is - comes in the form of stories, whether it's the stories our parents tell us about their youth or from the stories from history in school or the stories that we read in novels or see in film. And that's a part of our shaping, too. And so I do think that one of the confusing things about the times we're in for young people is that for hundreds of years, serious art - you know, a symphony, a landscape painting, a novel - took time to make and took time to consume, as it were. And that was a nourishing cycle. But what's kind of happened is we moved into an era where information is being created very quickly and dispensed at a rapid pace. And I think there's a certain point at which when you make the shift from slow and deep to fast and furious, the information that we used to consume starts to consume us - not to sound cranky. You know - well, as you say, you know, we're trying not to.

SIMON: 'Cause I agree with you. And I don't - but I don't want us to sound like two cranky men with teenagers.

TOWLES: Yes. But yes, I do take heart that at the same time, what you're seeing is a great love of the opposite. Long-form television is an example. You know, long-form television is about lengthening the narrative. You know, movies aren't long enough for the modern era. My kids, you know, they prize the eight-hour series, the 16-hour serial, the development of the characters, the changing of events, the shifting of the morality over the course of the tale. So I think both things are happening. The kids are responding to their own anxiety about the flurry of information that isn't satisfying them by seeking out longer-form, slower-form narratives to enrich themselves because they can tell what is really adding depth to their own sense of the world and what is just skimming the surface.

SIMON: Amor Towles - his novel, "The Lincoln Highway" - thank you so much for being with us.

TOWLES: Thank you for having me, Scott.

(SOUNDBITE OF YOTTO'S "ISOLATION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.