The Lincoln Highway Another Fine Amor Towles Novel




By Amor Towles

Viking, 576 pages.




The Lincoln Highway traverses through the town in which I grew up. Plus, Amor Towles’ last book A Gentlemen in Moscow is my favorite novel of the 21st century. You0214 could say I was psyched to read this one.


At first, I was mildly disappointed, but The Lincoln Highway grew on me with every page. If you don’t know, the Lincoln Highway runs from Times Square to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, and is generally regarded as the nation’s first transcontinental auto route. Towles’ tale isn’t about the highway per se, but it is about a helter-skelter road trip. Its principal character is Emmett Watson, who was sent to reform school for accidentally killing a bully in a fight. We meet him in 1954, the year he turned 18 and maxed out. Though he is person of few words, he can’t wait to get home to Nebraska to see his kid brother Billy, though he knows he’ll probably have to leave the Cornhusker State because of the bad blood he left behind. Leaving isn’t really a problem as his mother ran away, his father is dead, the farm has just been foreclosed, and Billy is being raised by friends.


He is surprised to find that his father left him several thousand dollars in cash and his old Studebaker. Surprise # 2 comes when Billy insists that he and Emmett should set off to find their mother in San Francisco, it being the last place from which she sent a postcard—8 years earlier.  Billy is a precocious kid with a love of maps and a head full of arcane/dubious information from a book he thinks will help them: Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers by Professor Abacus Abernathy. As far as Billy’s concerned, that book might as well be the Bible.


But the biggest surprise of all is that two of Emmett’s friends from the reform school—Wallace Wolcott “Woolly” Martin and Daniel “Dutchess” Hewett—stowed away in the trunk of the warden’s car that deposited Emmett back home. What a pair of characters they are! Woolly comes from a lot of money, but he is 18 going on 10, if you discount his drinking and carousing. Dutchess was sent up for a theft he didn’t commit and he’s on the opposite end of the SES scale; it was his no-account actor father who framed him! Neither is exactly goal-oriented or has a very good sense of what belongs to them. Toss in maternal Sally Ransom, who is sweet on Emmett, down on her banker father, and possesses a mind of her own.


What transpires is a zigzag road trip to California by way of the Dakotas, New York City, and several stops east and west in between. Towles’ story is a mix of Huckleberry Finn, Bound for Glory, Travels with Charley, O’ Brother Where Art Thou? and The Odyssey­—all of which takes place over 10 days and is told in count-down form. You name it and it happens:  impulsive “borrowing” of Emmett’s car, a visit to a Catholic orphanage, hopping freight trains, danger on the rails, a black hobo camp, conmen, revenge, the discovery of exotic foods (like artichokes and fettuccini), cops looking for AWOL Woolly and Dutchess, a visit to the Empire State Building, a sad black man who—courtesy of Billy—identifies with Ulysses, double-crosses, and a morality play about greed.


As you probably surmised, this is a sprawling novel. It is often humorous, yet it’s also poignant, moving, and tragic. Amor Towles is simply an amazing author. He writes, “Wouldn’t it have been wonderful… 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 snuggly in its very own, specially designed spot, and in so doing, would enable the whole intricate picture to become complete.” Yeah, if only. But some pieces are simply the wrong shape.


Rob Weir









Cinema Paradiso a Perfect Film for Holiday Season




Directed and written by Giuseppe Tornatore

Titanus, 124 minutes, R (dumbest rating ever!)

In Italian with subtitles




The holiday season brings out the sentimental softy in all of us, but how many times can you watch It’s a Wonderful Life and A Charlie Brown Christmas? How about something different? It’s not a holiday film, but you could do worse than crank up the Wayback Machine and watch/re-watch Cinema Paradiso, which rightly won the 1989 Best Foreign Language Oscar, the Cannes Grand Prix, and numerous other prizes. Among other things, it will remind you that people who watch movies on their smart phones are without a cinematic bone in their bodies.


Cinema Paradiso is an Italian love letter to movies, especially American ones. It’s set in a small Sicilian village in the years immediately after World War II and extends into the 1980s. Rome-based film director Salvatore Di Vita (Jacques Perrin) learns that back in his Sicilian hometown, a man named Alfredo has died. That triggers flashbacks and the movie magic begins. Di Vita’s village, Bagheria, is not the same place as the square where the namesake cinema was allegedly situated–it’s in Palazzo Adriana–but it scarcely matters. We meet Di Vita’s 8-year-old self–played by the sly and winsome Salvatore Cascio–the son of a soldier who hasn’t returned from the war and Maria (Antonella Attili), who is struggling to keep her household together. There’s no money and Salvatore, nicknamed Toto, spends days and nights sneaking or ingratiating his way into the Cinema Paradiso. Toto has never met a film he doesn’t like, though the movies are the only game in town and everyone else loves them as well.


Toto has something the others don’t have, a developing friendship with the middle-aged (and illiterate) projectionist Alfredo (the great French actor Philippe Noiret). Alfredo does his best to chase Toto away, but to no avail and he too falls prey to Toto’s impish charm. Soon, Toto is watching films from the booth and is being schooled in how to operate the projector. It’s a good thing, as an accident sends the cinema up in flames and blinds Alfredo. A local businessman Spaccafino (Vincento Cannavale) helps rebuild the Nuovo Cinema Paradiso and I’ll bet you know who the new projectionist will be.


The film centers on the relationship between Alfredo and Toto, but the village backdrop is precious in its own right. If you think Frank Capra’s Bedford Falls has personality, it’s bland compared to Bagheria. The latter is populated by characters who redefine the world colorful: a mildly demented man who thinks he owns the square, a prudish priest (Leopoldo Trieste), a snooty bourgeois who spits from the balcony upon those he thinks are communists, scores of street kids, and villagers who aren’t afraid to cry their eyes out when what’s on the screen moves them. I’ll bet every director wishes he or she had made this movie and several of the actors–Perrin, Cannavale, Trieste–were directors.


We watch as Toto becomes a young man (Marco Leonardi) and falls in love with Elena (Agnese Nano), but circumstance has other ideas. Through it all, it’s Toto and Alfredo, who one day makes Toto promise he will leave the village and never come back. In Rome, Di Vita becomes a famed film director in his own right and keeps his promise for 30 years, returning only for Alfredo’s funeral. You can imagine how much has changed in that period of time. You’ll have to watch to see what decision Di Vita made. I’ll say only that the film has a multilayered denouement that is moving, funny, and deeply satisfying.


I should also note that the film carries an R rating, which may be the dumbest single designation of the past quarter century. I give away nothing when I say that it derives from just two moments: a gross (but hysterical) comeuppance in which a snob is on the losing end, and naked breasts on filmstrips that are integral to the story and wouldn’t be considered salacious by a fundamentalist weaned on a pickle.


Cinema Paradiso is a life-affirming tale that reminds you of what movies can do that television programs cannot. If you’re looking for holiday cheer after too much of that ice pick to the brain known as soulless mall with piped-in cheesy carols, you’ll find it here. You might even wish to freeze the credits so you too can see the magical celluloid creations that thrilled young Toto.


Rob Weir