Let’s take a pause from Lenten reflections this week for what may seem a detour, but in a sense lies smack on the spiritual path. If you liked Amore Towles’ Gentleman in Moscow, you’ll probably get quickly immersed in his newest novel, The Lincoln Highway. It’s radically different, but still shows the author’s signature interest in unlikely characters, and skill in developing their quirks and gifts through a complex weave.
Not often I get to hang out with 3 teen-aged boys from the “juvenile reform farm” that’s a subtler form of jail. Yet this rollicking road trip with Emmett, Duchess and Wooly proves the axiom, “to understand all is to forgive all.” It begins when Emmett wants to leave a small Nebraska town, prompted by his little brother Billy’s deep desire to find their mom in San Francisco. How do they wind up in New York instead? Ah, therein lies the tale.
Towles is wise enough to know that one doesn’t simply label a person with the dismissive term “juvenile delinquent.” Each one arrived at unwise action by a different path—one illiterate, abused by a parent, one quite wealthy and mentally ill, one trying to defend his father’s reputation, but landing an unlucky punch. A crazy logic governs their worst shenanigans, and a strong sense of companionship explains some of their mishaps. Denied justice, they still seek it—perhaps in skewed and illegal ways, but with committed gusto. In every case, the “delinquent” was betrayed by people who should’ve cared for him—yet he laughs and shines.
One, abandoned by his father to an orphanage because the child is “inconvenient,” has the good fortune of meeting with a cigarette-smoking nun who embodies compassion. Sister Agnes sees the goodness in the boy even when he pulls the most aggravating stunts. She invites his companion Emmett to be a Good Samaritan because at a critical juncture, the irritating boy needs a friend. The familiar parable fleshed out in vivid, contemporary terms is just one of the book’s nuggets.
Another is Billy, the clear-eyed child who in his quiet, steady way, leads them. Not only that, he draws the parallels between their adventure and classic epics such as The Iliad and The Odyssey. He has a keen sense of rightness in human relationships, and directs his older brother to cherish these above all else. When Billy was six, his brother got into the fight that changed their lives, but Billy clearly remembers that even during the violence, “Emmett … never once let go of Billy’s hand.” (p. 511)
The depths of any person can be known only by an imaginative author—or a Creator, “who causes the sun to rise on the bad as well as the good, who sends down rain to fall on the upright and the wicked alike” (Mt. 5:45). Fortunate readers glimpse here that all-embracing theme: Either all is sacred, or nothing is sacred.