Janelle Bailey brings us another review, which is late because of me. I am in the throws (literally correct spelling) of final edits for the forthcoming MASKS MISINFORMATION AND MAKING DO, which is collected stories of Appalachian healthcare workers. So please enjoy Janelle’s review; you may or may not enjoy the book more than she did.
Having absolutely and thoroughly enjoyed Towles’s earlier A Gentleman in Moscow, I very eagerly anticipated the arrival of this, his newest, as my Book of the Month Club selection.
Like A Gentleman in Moscow, this book also tells a good story and is rich with good stuff: characters to love and characters to loathe, the development of characters and engagement of the reader by sharing characters’ history and upbringing, smart new words to look up and learn, wise and insightful nuggets.
It is, essentially, the story of two brothers, Emmett and Billy Watson, ages eighteen and eight, respectively, Emmett recently released from a work farm in Salina, Kansas, and their plan to start life freshly together, starting with a western adventure. Before they can take off, those plans change a bunch, with the arrival of two of Emmett’s fellow work farm “friends,” Duchess and Woolly. The flavor of the adventure changes a bunch, as does its direction, its path, its mode, its purpose, and much, much more along the way.
To this book’s credit, there are also numerous nuggets of beauty, moments of fine peace and understanding of humanity and character. There is, for instance, a passage I so loved that I would print and frame it, cross-stitch it, stencil it on something; it has left a tremendous impression on me of a shared understanding (between Towles and me, I think) of how we envision a “better world”: “Wouldn’t it have been wonderful, thought Woolly, if everybody’s life was like a piece in a jigsaw puzzle. Then no one person’s life would ever be an inconvenience to anyone else’s. It would just fit snugly in its very own, specially designed spot, and in so doing, would enable the whole intricate picture to become complete” (500). I am very much on board with that idea. I truly do not understand why so many people today are wired for “competition” especially when on the “same” team as those with whom they “compete.” How do we help people who operate that way to see that if, instead, they were inspiring each to do and be their very best, then the “team” would truly be “winning” and by leaps and bounds. At least that is how I also interpret and then extrapolate Towles’ comment. And clearly I digress from The Lincoln Highway.
At the end of the book and my completion of its reading, however, it did not all quite add up to my feeling as I had about Towles’s second work, aforementioned. This one lacks some special something, ultimately, that would have made it, also, “great.”
Maybe the book is just a tad longer than it needs to be, long enough that it wallows and flounders a bit for the last third or so, dragging out and on the now multiple, layered “quests” a tad beyond the valuable or compelling tension and anticipation.
Maybe it is the number of questions or tension-filled scenes that never get answered or satisfactorily: how/when/where did Woolly and Duchess even get into/out of the warden’s trunk in the first place? What is the big deal with Woolly’s “other” sister, K? Why does Sally, a teenaged girl in 1954, have her own pickup truck? I am simply not sure that’s realistic for that time, but maybe it is. Why is “Dennis” always called “Dennis” with quotation marks? Oh, there are others, but those are a few.
To be honest, I also take issue with the narrative voice(s?): while seemingly it is to come through or be conveyed by or via these several different characters’ voices, it really feels more like it is all from the same perspective—perhaps it is more Towles than any of his characters—for in nearly every section it sounds much more highly educated than the voices of any of these characters. None have had much formal education at all, let alone one that would have enhanced their vocabularies and literary experiences to this extent. Only Duchess, who may have background in Shakespeare recitation thanks to his performing father, might have possibly attained such a vocabulary. Might. But it is less likely that he would use those words well in completely different contexts, I still think. And possibly Billy, for all of his reading and re-reading—but he is still 8!—could conceivably have picked up his part and allusions.
Ultimately these many questions I asked of the book while reading it made me miss, tremendously, my ELA classroom and its numerous students and greatly the opportunity to discuss books with other readers, regularly and both formally and informally. I never claim to have the “right” or solely accurate assessment of a book; that truly comes with shared perspectives and much discussion. I read far more in isolation these days than I ever did, and I love a good talk and discussion to enlighten me…to straighten out my limited perspective in reading in isolation. So I may have all of these things wrong about Towles’ book as well, and if so, please straighten me out, and I will heartily apologize.
And I intend no disrespect whatsoever to those who read and LOVE this book. It definitely has plenty for many, many readers. I simply cannot stamp this one with my “of literary merit” seal.