A reviewer recently noted Amor Towles’ new novel The Lincoln Highway follows the theme of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. Just for fun, I thought I’d try to compare them.
If ever there were a rapscallion like Huck, it would be Duchess, the young escapee from Salina prison, who hides out in the trunk when the Sheriff takes Emmett back home to attend his father’s funeral, and then “borrows” Emmett’s inheritance. Instead of rambling down the Mississippi on a raft, they are driving down the old Lincoln Highway in a Studebaker.
All the boys are on an adventure, and the characters they meet could more closely align with the journey of the Odyssey, neatly used as an inspiration in the book of heroes by Professor Abacus Applenathe, a gift from the town’s librarian to Billy, the eight year old younger brother of Emmett. Billy still believes in dreams and magic, while Emmett and Duchess are jaded at eighteen, one looking for easy street, the other for a better life.
I’ll leave it to you to connect the characters they meet to famous literary or mythological counterparts, but Penelope is there, in the form of Sally – true and waiting.
It’s a fun road trip to make, although the switchbacks at each chapter to another character speaking can be disconcerting. In the end, some keep traveling the highway while others come to their roads end.
These days we might all want to escape reality and live in a cloud cuckoo land. The phrase has been used in politics, poetry, and music, but Anthony Doerr cleverly channels its ancient Greek mythological origin to tie together a story spanning from Constantinople, to the Korean War, to present day, and finally, to a spaceship of the future where a few select citizens of Earth have escaped the apocalypse and are traveling to a better place, light years away.
The kernel of the story keeps reappearing as a favorite book of five intersecting characters across centuries. The book first appears as a crumbling codex in the legendary library of ancient Constantinople just before the city was captured and destroyed. Anna reads the story of Aethon to her sister. Once told by an ancient Greek as a bedtime tale and based on Aristophanes’ play, “The Birds,” a man wishing for a better life dreams of becoming a soaring bird, in order to reach the fabled paradise of cloud cuckoo land. He first turns into a donkey, then a fish, until finally getting his wings to land at the gates of his destination.
Before the city falls, Anna escapes with the book and meets Omeir, a village boy with his oxen who had been conscripted into the war to destroy Constantinople but is now heading home.
When the book started, I got lost and had to start again. The stories seemed unconnected as they jumped centuries, but the rhythm soon caught up with me, until it became a page-turner I couldn’t put down. The ingenious hook occurs early in a scene at a library, where children are enacting the mythical story about the donkey searching for redemption. Zeno, who learned Greek as a prisoner of war and is now an ardent library regular researching the old Greek tale, is directing children in a play about the search for cloud cuckoo land. Doerr later backtracks to fill in Zeno’s life as a young man, but here, at the beginning of the story, he is an old man in his eighties, about to confront a teenage terrorist with a gun and a bomb, intent on using the violent suggestions he learned from the internet to save the world from the encroaching development destroying the environment around him.
We learn Zeno’s fate through the young girl in the spaceship of the future. Konstance was born on the spaceship and only knows about Earth from her research, facilitated by Sybil, the computer driving the ship and in charge of the ship’s library. Seymour, the troubled teenager with the bomb in the library of 2020, developed the software for Sybil, and secretly placed a series of hidden clues in the code which leads the girl to her destination.
Despite knowing what will happen to Zeno, the intermittent returning to the library with children cowering in the stacks remains the tease – maybe it will turn out better, we hope, knowing it won’t. And, knowing the girl is on the spaceship in the future, looking for another planet, proves the Earth has already self-destructed, yet this doesn’t keep us from hoping otherwise – we are all in cloud cuckoo land, after all.
Like so many wise epithets included in Doerr’s story, the donkey turned bird is faced with a riddle to solve before being allowed entrance to the gates of paradise: “He that knows all the Learning ever writ, knows only this.” What is the only thing he knows? You might guess the answer – the more you know, the more you know you know nothing. And libraries are the places where you can find out.
Doerr connects all the lives in the ending, the book is returned to the library, and he neatly wraps up the donkey’s quest. Faced with the choice of staying in the paradise of cloud cuckoo land, since he has solved the riddle, he chooses instead to “eat the rose professed by the goddess and returns home.” The myth’s ending has two possibilities in the original Greek version but I prefer the one Doerr chose – no matter where you go, there’s no place like home.
Doerr is a master storyteller and in Cloud Cuckoo Land he reminds readers what a respite reading can offer. He manages to weave the stories of five very different characters together through the love of reading a good book.
Fodor recently ran an article about Disney World in the time of the pandemic, with visitors needing to be more organized and more patient. Disney is celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, and I remember my advance planning years ago with two children anxious to see it all. I had maps, diagrams, routes from one park to another, places to eat with reservations at the Disney version of fast food places. Back then, no Fast Pass existed, but staying at a hotel in the park gave the customer an extra early hour to start queuing up. Each hour brought more frantic hurry to get through and get it done. Later in life I joined European tours with each day preplanned, hour by hour, popular tourist spots carefully timed, each hour strategically organized to see the most, the best, the fastest.
I don’t remember not having a schedule, and not being in a hurry, so now I dream of going back alone – strolling quiet streets in Provence, wandering the outdoor market to pick up some herbs, stopping to pick up a baguette and some cheese, or wandering down the steps of Portofino to my favorite small bakery for a breakfast of almond cake and an espresso before checking on the ferry to Capri with no worry about germs spreading and attacking me as I breathe in the air. Will it ever happen?
Tours seem too full of people to be safe; I often caught a cold on a packed bus traveling from one attraction to the next. Maybe with a mask, disinfectant, cleaning spray, and whatever other mitigation efforts the tour companies are hawking these days, it would be safer, but I would be no less anxious. Maybe this will all pass and be remembered only as a nightmare, someday. It’s hard to know how many years we can endure the strain – has it been almost two years now? Patience has never been my forte.
In the meantime, I dream about walking isolated streets and beaches, and try to read about whatever will help me escape, but it isn’t easy. Lately, some of the books I’ve finished include:
Bewilderment by Richard Powers – good writing never goes out of style, and the Pulitzer Prize winner returns with a heavy tome examining Artificial Intelligence, grief, and our brains. The hope of new worlds and a better environment seem timely. Not for everyone, but I’m glad I read it. If you want more, try the review by NPR’s Heller McAlpin – https://www.npr.org/2021/09/21/1039090479/richard-powers-bewilderment-review
The Stranger Behind You by Carol Goodman – a Gothic mystery thriller from one of my favorite authors
Apples Never Fall by Lianne Moriarty – this author never disappoints with her unexpected plot twists and surprise ending. The story reminded me of Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” but with a touch of “Gone Girl.” The ending seems to be a little too long after the big reveal but my friend tells me it has already been optioned for a TV movie/series.
I am almost finished reading the new Anthony Doerr book – Cloud Cuckoo Land and it is a faster read than I expected. Actually, cloud cuckoo land sounds like a good place to be right now.
It’s been hard to focus on anything but survival lately. Even Krueger’s new book “Lightning Strike” has been wallowing at page 14, waiting for me to get back to it. But I need to shape up; I’ve preordered 5 books to be delivered soon and they all promise to be good reads:
Book titles catch my eye but I really don’t have a list. I write them on little slips of paper, the backs of envelopes, at the bottom of the plumber’s list, on the paint swatches – all in a pile I keep planning to organize.
All night thrillers seem to attract me the most lately, vicariously providing satisfaction from feeling powerless over the verbal abuse by the plumber’s secretary, along with false promises and purposeful delays on a seemingly endless renovation.
A few books lately have offered some respite:
Megan Miranda’s Such A Quiet Place had the same twisting switchbacks as her earlier book The Last House Guest. This story has the neighborhood in a small college town disrupted by murder and the return of the murderer, when she is released early from prison. Speculation, gossip, and manipulative friendships twist the plot, and the idea of being a good neighbor gets a makeover.
The Turnout by Megan Abbott sets the scene in a small, old ballet studio needing a renovation after a fire caused by a space heater. With my recent experiences with a renovation, I could relate to some of the lines: “He has to finish that renovation sometime” and “Aren’t there some states, she’d heard Detective Mendoza joke to Walters, where murdering your contractor is a misdemeanor?” A creepy thriller with a twisting plot. You may never think of the Nutcracker the same again.
Finally, The 22 Murders of Madison May by Max Barry starts as a routine police procedural but quickly morphs into a strange tale of a serial killer with touches of sci-fi. This page turner follows a journalist investigating the murder of a young attractive real estate agent. Her chase leads her through time and space into parallel universes as the reporter discovers she’s not the only one who’s in pursuit of the murderer, who keeps killing the same woman in different versions of her life. The time travel keeps the pace fast, and the ending may have you wondering which version of the good life you are living. Lots of fun.