The year 2021 was dominated by the coronavirus pandemic, and many of us found comfort in curling up with a good book, using reading to satisfy a need for escape from the everyday. I found Amor Towles’ latest book, “The Lincoln Highway,” to be an outstanding diversion.
Towles, a former investment banker, burst onto the literary scene in 2011 with his successful debut novel “Rules of Civility,” which follows a witty and gritty heroine in 1930s Manhattan. That was followed in 2016 by the delightfully creative bestseller “A Gentleman in Moscow,” in which an ingenious Count is condemned by communist authorities to live out his life cooped up in a posh Moscow hotel, unable to leave on pain of death. In “The Lincoln Highway,” he’s written a multi-layered tale about a search for a missing mother and a hunt to find a large stash of cash. The plot is light and fast-paced, as three men and a young boy race their way from Nebraska to New York by car and rail, speeding against a looming deadline. This beautifully crafted novel gives readers what all great road novels provide: the panoramic sweep of the prairies and hills, adventures that seem to leap from the landscape itself, and the driving rhythm of the road.
The story opens in 1954, on the brink of several big cultural changes in America – the sexual revolution of the 1960s, the civil rights movement, and rock ’n’ roll. It counts down from Day 10 to Day 1. 18-year-old Emmett Watson is being driven through the midwestern bleakness by a prison warden. He has been released on compassionate grounds after serving 15 months for hitting a kid who mocked his sickly father. The boy had fallen against a curb and died, and Emmett was shipped off to a juvenile reform school on a farm in Kansas. Now he’s back, and facing a lot of misfortune. His debt-ridden father is recently dead from cancer, and the family farm has been seized by the bank. Emmett must figure out how to take care of himself and his precocious 8-year-old brother Billy. Emmett’s mother, an East Coast transplant, left the family after Billy’s birth, sending postcards as a clue to her whereabouts.
Emmett agrees to indulge Billy’s fantasy of finding their mother in San Francisco, retracing her trek west along the Lincoln Highway, America’s oldest coast-to-coast road: “It starts in Times Square in New York City and it ends three thousand three hundred and ninety miles away in Lincoln Park in San Francisco.” They would also pass near their old Nebraska farm. There’s a problem, however: Emmett’s cherished powder-blue Studebaker, that “looked a little like a car that your dentist’s wife would drive to bingo,” has been “borrowed” by a couple of boys on the run from the work farm who escaped on the back of the truck that brought Emmett home. Duchess and Woolly, also 18, are driving it to New York City to ransack Woolly’s trust fund and settle a few scores. Duchess, though likable and sharp, is utterly untrustworthy. He leads Emmett and Billy on a dance across the Northeastern U.S., with his sidekick, lost soul Woolly, simply wanting for a good meal and a safe home. Together the boys meet a varied cast of characters: clowns, hobos, unemployed actors, panhandlers, home-makers, grifters, and Ulysses, a Black World War II veteran who, like his Greek namesake, is winding up his lengthy journey back to his wife and son. The worst of the lot is a crooked preacher named Pastor John, quoting the Bible as he plots to steal Billy’s collection of silver dollars. He represents the ever-present danger of placing your trust in the wrong authority.
Beyond the mischievous adventures, there are deeper questions of justice. Duchess lives by a moral code not far off the Old Testament: an eye for an eye, a crack with a cast-iron skillet for harm done to a friend. Like the self-justifying Pastor John, he is an outcast, and his remorseless debt-settling is frontier justice personified. Emmett, by contrast, grows to share in the societal code laid down not by police or presidents, but by good ordinary people in the community.
The novel is told through varying points of view and each is as engaging and fully realized as the next. The author embraces the unclear mysteries that mix light and darkness in human nature. Despite his wayward ways, Duchess actually strives to adopt Emmett’s effortless sense of honor, but his twisted nature warps it into a pretext for dealing out violent retribution. By contrast, Emmett comes of age before our eyes, curbing his dangerous temper, fine-tuning his moral compass and focusing his sense of fairness.
“The Lincoln Highway” is a is a long and winding road, but once the author’s disparate crew find their way on with brains, heart and courage. It’s a book that is as much about the literary history of the American road as it is about the journey itself, and it’s right up there with the very best of the genre: Kerouac’s “On the Road,” Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley” and William Least Heat-Moon’s “Blue Highways.” But, by focusing on accountability and enduring truths, Amor Towles has created a stunning book that is a timely refresher in our sad era of bizarre alternate realities and unashamed self-interest.