Skip to main content

The Lincoln Highway

Review

The Lincoln Highway

From HUCKLEBERRY FINN to ON THE ROAD, the road novel has a long and vibrant pedigree in American literature. Amor Towles, author of RULES OF CIVILITY and A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW, has decided to make his own contribution to that genre in his third novel, THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY. The story features an appealing cast of young characters and an ingeniously complicated plot, but doesn’t fully realize its potential as a classic picaresque novel.

Named for the United States’ first transcontinental highway, which begins at 42nd and Broadway in New York’s Times Square and ends in San Francisco’s Lincoln Park, THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY opens far from those terminal points, in a small Nebraska town in 1954. The novel follows the Watson brothers --- 18-year-old Emmett, who has just arrived home from 15 months in a Kansas juvenile reform program, where he was sentenced for his role in the accidental death of another teenager, and eight-year-old Billy. Emmett’s term has been shortened due to the death of his father, and he returns home to find that the local bank has foreclosed on the family farm.

"The story features an appealing cast of young characters and an ingeniously complicated plot... There are ample moments of suspense, humor and even pathos..."

The brothers have no qualms about saying goodbye to the prairie, because each has a dream he hopes to realize on reaching California in Emmett’s 1948 powder blue Studebaker Land Cruiser. Emmett’s involves using the $3,000 in cash his late father concealed from creditors to start a career flipping houses. Billy expects to find their mother and reunite with her at the fireworks display in San Francisco on July 4, the day before the anniversary of the date she abandoned her family, when he was a newborn. Her only contact since that abrupt departure was a series of nine postcards she sent from various points as she journeyed west along the eponymous highway.

But as their trek is about to begin, an obstacle arrives in the form of Duchess and Woolly, friends of Emmett who have decided to grant themselves parole from the same Kansas institution where he was incarcerated, by stowing away in the trunk of the car of the warden who drove Emmett home. The roguish Duchess’s seemingly innocent request to visit the orphanage where he once lived before depositing him and Woolly at the Omaha bus station gives Duchess the opportunity to abscond with Emmett’s car and head for New York. He settles some old scores along the way and seeks to get his hands on a share of the trust fund that Woolly (aka Wallace Wolcott Martin), the scion of a prominent New York family, is to inherit.

This setup only hints at some of the complexity of THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY’s plot. It’s impossible to summarize all of the interactions among these characters and the many twists and turns of Towles’ rococo storytelling over the mere 10 days of the novel’s time span. There are ample moments of suspense, humor and even pathos, as the “four musketeers” --- as Duchess dubs them (later briefly joined by Sally, daughter of the Watson boys’ neighbor) --- make their way east to the New York area. Emmett and Billy hop on and off freight trains in some of the novel’s more perilous scenes, pursuing Duchess and Woolly to retrieve Emmett’s car and resume their journey to the West Coast.

Towles has chosen to tell the story principally from the perspectives of Emmett, Billy, Woolly, Duchess and Sally, the latter two from a first person point of view. In a few instances, the same events are seen from the viewpoints of different characters. Some of these alternating sections are as short as three pages, but as the lengthy (576-page) novel moves along, the frequent shifts from one character to another begin to feel obtrusive more than refreshing.

Of all the novel’s characters, Billy is by far the most endearing. He’s a sweet, trusting boy whose intellect and curiosity far outstrip his tender years. His bible, which he has proudly read 24 times, is entitled Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers, a collection of brief retellings of heroic journeys, among them Homer’s Odyssey. That book figures neatly into the plot when Ulysses, a Black veteran who’s been riding the rails for more than eight years, rescues Billy from a predatory character named Pastor John, a man linked to faith in name only.

Close behind him in engaging the reader’s sympathies is Woolly. Despite his family’s wealth, his life has been irrevocably damaged by the death of his father in World War II. Even though he’s 20 years old, he’s a character of unsurpassed kindness who has a childlike quality about him. There are moments when it’s necessary to remind oneself that Billy is his junior.

THE LINCOLN HIGHWAY fully engages the reader’s sympathies with the Watson brothers and Woolly, and keeps one guessing about the next scheme Duchess will pull from his bag of tricks. This diverting entertainment has its share of daring, amusing and moving moments, but somehow it adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on October 8, 2021

The Lincoln Highway
by Amor Towles

  • Publication Date: October 5, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 592 pages
  • Publisher: Viking
  • ISBN-10: 0735222355
  • ISBN-13: 9780735222359