Imagine if you will that an author who wrote a highly successful novel about a man trapped for decades in a hotel himself develops claustrophobia and decides the only cure is to write about a wild road trip. I honestly don’t know if that was Amor Towles’s motivation for his newest novel, but its premise is about as different from that of A Gentleman in Moscow as it could possibly be.
The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles braids together several related archetypes of literature: a coming-of-age story, a hero’s quest, and a picaresque tale of rogues. As the title indicates, each of these involves a journey, although not the journey that the protagonist originally envisions.
Emmett Watson is a Nebraska teenager, abandoned by his mother as a young boy, raised by a father who left the life of a Boston Brahmin to try his luck as a farmer on the Great Plains. But he turns out to be hopeless at it, making one bad decision after another. As a result, Emmett decides early on to pursue a different path, so he chooses to work for a carpenter to learn a more reliable way to provide for himself. He seems to be succeeding, earning enough to buy his own car, when a rash action changes his life. A taunting by the town bully in the presence of his little brother leads Emmett to throw a punch that inadvertently causes the other boy’s death. He believes in facing the consequences of his actions and stoically accepts an eighteen-month sentence to a juvenile work farm in Kansas.
Fifteen months later, Emmett is released early because his father has died and his eight-year-old brother Billy needs him. Returning home, Emmett learns that the bank has foreclosed on the farm—and that, even if he could return to his old life, the family of the boy he killed has no intention of letting him do so. Emmett had already decided to relocate to Texas, a state with a booming economy and population, where a carpenter’s skills will never go out of demand. His brother, however, has a different plan. After their father’s death, Billy unearthed a hidden stash of postcards sent by their mother on her runaway journey along the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco. He urges Emmett that they should follow her path and try to find her. Young Billy is idealistic, his imagination fired by a book called Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers. Emmett is skeptical but loathe to disappoint his brother, and when he discovers that California’s population is growing even faster than that of Texas, he reluctantly agrees.
The two boys make preparations to leave in Emmett’s sky blue Studebaker. Little do they know that two other boys from the work farm stowed away in the trunk of the warden’s car when he drove Emmett home from Kansas. Duchess and Woolly present themselves the morning of the Watsons’ intended departure and insist that Emmett instead drive them to a hunting lodge in upstate New York that belongs to Woolly’s wealthy family to collect Woolly’s $150,000 trust fund, stored in the safe there. Woolly promises to split the money three ways, sharing with Emmett and Duchess equally. And Billy, captivated by the romantic idea of driving the Lincoln Highway from its beginning in New York to its end in California, adds his voice to the chorus.
What follows is a sequence of adventures, accidents, betrayals, and encounters both dangerous and poignant. The story is packed with enough twists and turns to make the reader wonder if Emmett and Billy will ever get back on their intended road. Most of it is highly enjoyable, although I confess to not much liking the ending. But what really sets this novel apart is the voices. Emmett, Billy, their neighbor Sally, Duchess, Woolly, and a few characters they meet along the way each get point-of-view characters, and each is utterly distinct and vivid. Their voices will linger with you long after the reading experience is over.