Girls was a semi-popular HBO television production that aired from 2012-2017. To say that it was not for everyone is quite the understatement. The show could be very crude, and your religion didn’t have to lean Pentecostal for you to feel that way.
Just the same, the series was at times very well written and insightful. One episode toward the end of the show’s run had Marnie (one of the “Girls”) in a bad spot. As so many do in real life, she was looking to shift the blame for her declining situation to others only for a grizzled, one-time character to tell her something along the lines of “I’ve never seen anyone at the pawn shop because of what others did.”
The actual piece of televised dialogue was much better put. Once again, the writing on Girls was at times very good. The episode mentioned came to mind while reading The Lincoln Highway, the latest novel by mega-bestselling author Amor Towles. What will be described as Highway going forward is Towles’s third book, after he garnered major popularity with his debut (The Rules of Civility), followed by A Gentleman In Moscow. Both novels were good reads, with A Gentleman In Moscow spectacular (my review here).
Girls came to mind while reading Highway because for a variety of reasons, three of the novel’s main characters (Emmett Watson, Duchess Hewett, and Woolly Martin) are in the proverbial pawn shop. The novel begins with the warden of a juvenile work camp in Salina, Kansas taking Emmett back to his family’s farm in Morgen, Nebraska. Emmet’s mother had left the family eight years prior, and his father’s untimely death from cancer secured Emmett an early release. He returns to his father’s foreclosed on farm (Mr. Watson “didn’t know what he was doing”), along with an inquisitive, abnormally smart eight-year-old brother named Billy.
Emmett’s plan is to pack Billy and very few belongings into a Studebaker he’d purchased with the proceeds from his work as a carpenter’s apprentice before Salina. He also has $3,000 that his father secretly left him that will fund a move out of Morgen. He and Billy will go either to California or Texas in order to start a new life. Emmett will buy one house, rehab it only to sell it at a profit, then buy two houses with an eye on fixing both only to sell one while living in the other.
As Emmett’s neighbor Sally Ransom puts it about Emmett late in the novel, he acts like smiles are a “precious resource.” Emmett is a serious, moral person; albeit one with a past that’s not all of his own making. Indeed, he can’t realistically stay in Nebraska because of what brought him to Salina in the first place. Two years before, he turned around to punch a Morgen local who was taunting him endlessly about his failed father. The punch wasn’t a killer, but the freak way in which the punch’s recipient landed resulted in him dying, and the rather innocent and good Emmett being sent to Salina.
Billy wants to move to California, and it’s his wish to follow their estranged mother’s presumed path on The Lincoln Highway. The latter is 3.390 miles long, and it’s the U.S.’s very first cross-country highway. It stretches from Times Square all the way to Lincoln Park in San Francisco. More on the Lincoln Highway in a bit, but Billy concludes that their mother took this route based on postcards she sent the kids after leaving, but that their father did not share with them while alive.
They’re all set to go, only for Duchess and Woolly to turn up. They were serving time at Salina with Emmett, and they’d climbed into Warden Williams’s trunk ahead of him driving Emmett home. Duchess and Woolly have other plans, plans that include bringing Emmett and Billy (the fourth musketeer as it were) east with them. Woolly comes from a prominent and well-to-do family, and there’s $150,000 in the safe at the family’s “camp” up in the Adirondacks. His and Duchess’s intent is to get the money, divide it up, and then get on with their lives.
Emmett has no interest in what his former barrack mates have cooked up, but novels wouldn’t be novels if everything went as planned. Duchess ultimately “borrows” Emmett’s Studebaker, only for him and Woolly to head east. Emmett and Billy hop a train hobo style in order to get the car back, and thus begins a story that takes place over 10 adventure-filled days.
Back to Girls and the “pawn shop,” Towles writes Emmett, Duchess and Woolly as though their work-camp misfortune was all the doing of others. Such is the prerogative of fiction novelists, they get to shape the characters in the way they like, but his drawing of them deprived Highway of believability. Realistically there’s no story if Emmett’s a really bad person who had purposely killed someone, but seemingly no one in Highway is at fault at which point we should all be so lucky to be sent off to a work camp filled with such interesting, articulate, and (in Woolly’s case) well-bred inmates. Everyone in Highway is abnormally perceptive, well read, and talented, including those at Salina.
None of this is to say Highway isn’t an enjoyable story. It’s very enjoyable. In my case, I finished what is a 576 page book in a little over 48 hours despite much of those hours being occupied with unrelated work. The book is hard to put down. I can’t wait for Towles’s next, and would see the film-rendering of Highway on the first day of release. At the same time, there’s so much within the novel that reads as trite, out of place, and untrue. More on what bothered me later on.
For now, and as is the case with all of my reviews, I’d like to pivot to interesting economic angles within Highway. There are many. What’s unknown is if this was the author’s intent. That Towles’s background is finance certainly makes it possible that he was making economic or political statements, but at the same time the book is neither outwardly economic nor political.
On to the economics.
As previously mentioned, Emmett returns from Salina to a farm that is being foreclosed on. He’s understandably terse with Tom Obermeyer, the banker overseeing the foreclosure. Obermeyer expresses great remorse, and makes plain that “no bank makes a loan in hopes of foreclosing.” No, they don’t. Precisely because bank loans don’t have an equity quotient, banks need them to perform. Obermeyer’s line is a corrective of the laughable commentary from the Left back in 2008 that “predatory lenders” essentially forced money on unsuspecting borrowers with no means to pay monies borrowed back. The narrative always vandalized reason, but its ferocious stupidity continues to animate Lefty commentary. To this day they promote what defies common sense; that loan sources quite literally targeted those incapable of paying them back.
While Charles Watson was a failed farmer whose yearly harvests were routinely imperiled by the vagaries of nature, Emmett chose work in the town before Salina; figuratively very far from the farm. Having witnessed his father’s ineptitude that was exacerbated by nature, he chose carpentry work that “welcomed the extremes of nature.” While schizophrenic weather was the enemy of the farmer, and weather extremes potentially bankrupting, these “natural forces” were the friend of carpenters and builders because they “slowly but inevitably undermined the integrity of the house.” So true, but in reading this I found myself wondering what 19th century French political economist Fredric Bastiat would say about Emmett’s assessment. No doubt he would be clear that destructive weather extremes wouldn’t be good for the overall economy, but how would he assess what these extremes meant for the economics of carpenters? The bet here is that he would question Emmett’s logic. Think about it. Imagine if houses were so sturdy as to not have their integrity undermined by weather and use? If so, imagine all the wealth not consumed on repairs, and that would be directed toward investment. Realistically carpenters would have much more work building more houses to reflect demand for same that is always a consequence of production first.
Still, Emmett (and by extension Towles) isn’t totally bereft of Bastiat, or Adam Smith. Smith observed in The Wealth of Nations that “the most decisive mark of prosperity of any country is the increase of the number of its inhabitants.” Emmett would agree. He ultimately concludes that he and Billy should move to California after comparing population increases from the 1920s to 1960s in Texas and California. Though Texas presently outpaces California in population growth (the statistics can be misleading, but that’s another column), the Golden State was well outpacing the Lone Star state in the first half of the 20th century. Seeing this at a library in Morgen, Emmett properly deduced that more people would mean more demand for the houses that he intended to rehab with an eye on selling. California it would be.
How was the Lincoln Highway initially constructed? This bit of history is eye-opening, and highly relevant in an economic sense. It is because those of us who claim a libertarian bent have long made the point that assuming a lack of massive federal highway spending, highways would still be all over the United States. They would be because businesses desire expansive market access, people treasure easy access to other people, and roadbuilders would logically exist to meet these needs. Absent the federal government, the profit motivations or private motivations to build that which connects us would still be great. And so they are. Or were. Applied to the Lincoln Highway, Towles writes that Carl G. Fisher “built the first sections in 1913 with the help of donations” from prosperous individuals like Teddy Roosevelt and Thomas Edison. In other words, we could drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco on roads with or without federal spending. The major difference is that private highways would be much better, and much less choked by traffic, precisely because price signals would inform usage.
When Duchess and Woolly ultimately “borrowed” Emmett’s car, they soon found that they had lost the signal to Emmett’s favorite radio station “somewhere back in Nebraska.” When Woolly turned on the radio with an eye on hearing the ads that endlessly entertained him, “all that came through the speaker was static.” Readers of this review will perhaps call this a reach, but call the static Duchess and Woolly endured a metaphor for the genius of inequality. As opposed to a pejorative, it’s actually a very bullish sign that wildly skilled entrepreneurs are able to meet the needs of more and more people. Were Duchess and Woolly on the road now, they could gain easy access to hundreds of stations without regard to location thanks to Sirius/XM. Barring that, through their internet enabled smartphones they could access the world’s radio stations for nothing. Soaring wealth inequality is a feature of a free society, not a bug.
About the ads that Woolly can’t get enough of, Duchess described them as pitches from businesses promising consumers that their products would remove “the lumps from their life.” Yes. Ludwig von Mises always described the rich as individuals whose commercial advances had removed “unease” from the lives of others. The criticism of inequality by both major ideologies is surely beneath both.
Duchess asks why people “born with money are always the ones who say the word like it’s in a foreign language?” His point was that those born with it in his experience are often the least likely to open their wallets when bills come. What a question? The likely answer is that what’s true today has always been true: parsimony is the surest path to wealth. Those born with money are perhaps loathe to spend it because it’s inborn? They descend from people whose own thrift made it possible for wealth to be passed on. Lest we forget, the histories of the greatest businesses that generated the greatest fortunes are usually defined by countless near-death experiences. By extension, business founders almost as a rule have to be very careful with money. It’s not unrealistic that their heirs are too. Good. Savings are what drive economic progress despite what credentialed economists believe. Entrepreneurs require unspent wealth to prosper. Adam Smith called savers “public benefactors” with good reason.
To ready Woolly in Highway is for Lennie in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men to come to mind. Lennie wants George to tell him about living off “the fat of the land” out west, while Woolly wants the streetwise Duchess to tell him about Leonello’s, the Manhattan-based Italian restaurant that doesn’t take reservations. It thrives because it doesn’t. As Duchess explains it, “You open a place that no one can get into, and everybody wants to be there.” There’s a genius to scarcity in the economic space, but like charm it’s in a sense elusive.
Duchess’s absentee father is a boozy, spottily employed actor in the mold of John Barrymore whose best friend is Fitzy FitzWilliam. FitzWilliam had at one time lived on 5th Avenue thanks to the willingness of people in Manhattan with “van” in their name to pay any amount in order to secure his services as Santa Claus during the Christmas season. But then one night the “shapely daughter of an industrialist” asked him to impersonate Karl Marx at a gathering put on by the Greenwich Village Progressive Society. A police raid of the gathering led to NYC’s #1 Santa being exposed as a Marx imitator (the actor in FitzWilliam couldn’t resist….acting) only for his career as the city’s highest paid Santa to end. This rates mention as a way of wondering: is Towles making a comment on the abject, frequently left-wing stupidity exhibited by the children of the actual wealth creators, or did the “shapely daughter of an industrialist” who’d gone socialist given him the story he needed to bring FitzWilliam into the failed orbit of Duchess’s father?
The guess here about the above question is that Towles is telling a story as opposed to being political or economic, but it’s always fun to wonder. Twenty pages later, Towles explains has-beens through Duchess talking about FitzWilliam. “When it comes to waiting, has-beens have had plenty of practice.” On the same page, there’s “that’s what has-beens do: They wait.” From this some could conclude that Towles is making a bigger point about people being the authors of their misfortune by waiting for good things to happen as opposed to doing. It’s certainly possible, but then as has already been written at length, to varying degrees Towles draws Emmett, Duchess, and Woolly as victims of simple bad luck.
There’s a very uplifting story of a black man by the name of Ulysses who saves Billy from being robbed (and arguably worse) in a box car on the train ride to New York. Ulysses is a symbol of something much bigger as readers of Highway will see, but for the purposes of this review he asserts that “everything of value in this life must be earned.” So true, but also wording that conservatives would in particular cheer. Is Towles political? The bet here yet again is no, but this doesn’t alter fact that there are economic and political truths uttered within Highway. And the truths are good. Highway is a book I’ll be referencing for a long time.
Still, what bothered me while reading Highway, and what lingers after reading it, is that there was seemingly no one looking over Towles’s shoulder as “quality control” expert. Someone to question some of what jumped out to yours truly as “trite, out of place, and untrue.” The examples are many, and they weakened the book.
Trite utterances were everywhere. Warden Williams tells Emmett you have your “whole life ahead of you” more than once, neighboring farmer Ed Ransom has known Emmett “since the day he was born.” Emmett was made a “hearty breakfast,” and then the night before Emmett’s depressed mother left the family, the family actually had a wonderful time at a fireworks show in Seward, Nebraska. The story indicates that the good time had by their mother made her realize she could be happy again, but only if she left the failed existence created by her husband. Ok, it all makes sense, but in a paragraph about gag wording, we’re treated to how after they returned from a great time in Seward, Emmett “slept soundly as any night in his life.” Oh come on!
There were also words that read as very out of place, or not of 1954. One character says we must “break bread,” Jake Snyder (brother of the Jimmy Snyder who was inadvertently killed by Emmett) has “wingmen” with him when he settles a score with a back-from-Salina Emmett, “nutjob” comes up once, and then Ma Belle (head of a raffish circus lounge, and realistically a brothel), upon hearing that Woolly attended (and was kicked out of) prominent boarding schools of the St. Paul’s, St. Mark’s, and St. George’s variety, explains to one of the women in her employ that those are “WASP” schools; the problem there that WASP wasn’t yet part of the lexicon in 1954.
Speaking of Woolly, though well-bred, well-traveled, and shuttled between the Upper East Side and the family’s amazing Adirondack “camp” all of his life, Towles once again drew him as Lennie. We have him randomly taking the Studebaker to see a Lincoln monument during the trek to New York (at risk of arrest), we have him fascinated by Howard Johnson menus and simplistic ads, and of course we have him asking Duchess to tell him about Leonello’s. Woolly is written as well-meaning but hopelessly dense. Except for when Towles wanted him to not be.
Seemingly touched (slow maybe?) during some parts of the novel, and quite simply out there, at others he’s lucid and biting; telling sister Sarah that he and Duchess are back in New York “Gadding about, I suppose. Hither and yon.” About his mother’s remarriage to Richard after his father’s death, the supposedly vacant of mind Woolly has enough mind to acidly comment on their mother’s commitment to her first marriage as “till death do them part – but not for a minute longer.”
About Emmett’s own parents, Charles claims in a letter to Emmett offering apologies for how little he was leaving him that Watson men from Boston going back to his great grandfather had left their sons “Not simply stocks and bonds, but houses and paintings,” along with memberships “in clubs and societies.” Emmett’s mother was similarly of some kind of Beacon Hill, and possibly Brahmin stock? Emmett ultimately concludes that his father came from a family like Woolly’s. It didn’t ring true. No doubt George H.W. Bush went to Midland to seek his fortune or place, but oil was a lucrative business when he went against type and headed to Texas. Conversely, farming was an industry in desperate shape by the 1930s, and it had been made worse by an Agricultural Adjustment Act that presumed to regulate the industry in suffocating ways. Yet we’re supposed to believe Emmett’s parents chose Morgen? It was hard to take seriously, and no quotation from Emerson explaining Charles’s reasoning could normalize the decision.
Townhouse is a character who appears throughout Highway either in recollection form, or live. He factors prominently in the story, but that’s really not the point. The point here is that he’s the clear Alpha among some street toughs in Harlem, and this Alpha like New Yorkers Duchess and Woolly similarly found his way to Salina. And you guessed it, really through no fault of his own. Yet at one point in a discussion about Duchess with Emmett, Townhouse observes that he is “like one of those guys who are born with no peripheral vision.” A good description of Duchess for sure, but the words of someone who’d spent time at a juvenile work camp? Unlikely. It cannot be stressed enough that seemingly everyone from Salina in the novel is there because of something someone else did, and these same individuals all talk as though they sat alongside Woolly at St. Paul’s.
Which brings us to Duchess. It’s no fun criticizing the author’s drawing of a character that the author so clearly loved drawing. At the same time, Duchess was all over the map as a person. Out of the same mouth that utters “deign,” “electorate,” “visage to visage,” and “each one of us has come from disparate parts,” comes old-time street-isms like “right in the kisser,” along with an easy ability to beat people to the point hospitalization and death, an easy rapport with ladies of the night, and a streetwise nature that has little to do with words like “deign.” And oh yes, Duchess is also an incomparable cook capable of whipping up fettucine mia amore when not settling scores meant to balance debits and credits.
What does this all mean? It’s hard to say. Maybe Towles can’t write street, or maybe he’s just an optimist writing remarkable people as he wants to write them. It’s hard to say. I’ll choose to believe that Towles is an unrelenting optimist and that this shows through in some amazing characters. At the same time, these individuals were hard to take seriously.
Do the alleged demerits mentioned call for not reading the novel? Certainly not. As mentioned, I couldn’t put it down. Most chapters end with cliff hangers of sorts, which meant I kept turning the pages until work commitments forced me to stop reading. But only for a time. Highway is a very good read, but probably the best way to conclude is that A Gentleman In Moscow thoroughly knocked me over. The Lincoln Highway ultimately is weighed down by Towles’s own excellent past, as do characters drawn that, while interesting, were frequently hard to believe.
I’m the editor of RealClearMarkets, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors. I’m also the author of five books. The most recent released in March is Whe
I’m the editor of RealClearMarkets, and a senior economic adviser to Applied Finance Advisors. I’m also the author of five books. The most recent released in March is When Politicians Panicked: The New Coronavirus, Expert Opinion, and a Tragic Lapse of Reason (Post Hill Press). Others are They’re Both Wrong (AIER, 2019), The End of Work (Regnery, 2018), , Who Needs the Fed? (Encounter, 2016) and Popular Economics (Regnery, 2015).