The Lincoln Highway, Amor Towles. New York: Viking, 2021.
Summary: A westward trip of two bereaved brothers to start a new life is interrupted when two prison friends of the older brother turn up and hi-jack their plans.
I will say straight out that I think this is one of the best road novels I’ve ever read–leaving Kerouac’s On the Road in the metaphorical dust. Towles allows this journey to unfold rather than pursue the frenetic pace of Kerouac. The adolescent characters have dreams toward which they strive, despite the cards dealt them in life, and while not saints, evidence principles and loyalties not evident in Kerouac’s dissolute young adults who still act the like immature adolescents.
The novel opens in June of 1954 with a warden driving Emmett Watson home on early release from Salinas, a juvenile detention center to which he’d been sentenced for the accidental manslaughter of a young man who struck his head when knocked down by Emmett, retaliating for insults to his family. He has returned because his father had died of cancer, his mother had long ago abandoned the family, and he is the only one to care for his precocious, eight-year old brother Billy. Billy has been looked after by a young neighbor woman, Sally, who has spent her life looking after the men in her life and wants something more.
Emmett realizes staying in his small Nebraska town is not a good idea. He has enemies and a cloud over his head and his father’s farm has been seized by the bank. He envisions a new start with Billy, driving away in his powder blue Studebaker to use his construction skills somewhere that is growing. He thinks Texas, but Billy thinks California, where he hopes to find his mother, based on the trail of postcards she’d sent. Billy has mapped out the route that follows the coast-to-coast Lincoln Highway that runs close to their home. They hope to make it by the July 4 fireworks in San Francisco. Billy’s mother loved fireworks, having left the day after a local display.
Their plans are interrupted when two fellow inmates from Salinas, Duchess and “Woolly,” show up on Emmett’s doorstep. They had escaped in the trunk of the warden’s car. “Duchess” was the son of a theatrical performer who betrayed him to the authorities to escape arrest. “Woolly” suffers some form of cognitive impairment requiring medication to keep him mellow. They want Emmett and Billy to drive them to New York to retrieve a $150,000 trust fund that has been withheld from Woolly, that they offer to split three ways.
Emmett will have none of it. He and Billy pack their kit bags (Billy with Abacus Abernathe’s compendium of heroic stories that he has read 24 times already). They plan to drop the other two at a bus station, but Duchess, who always seems to have other ideas, creates a diversion at the orphanage he once lived in, then steals the Studebaker, and with Woolly takes off for New York, with $3,000 that Emmett’s father had left him, stowed behind the spare tire.
Emmett and Billy, nearly penniless, decide to pursue them the only way they can, by hopping a freight train, and the race is on to intercept them in New York, to retrieve the Studebaker, and hopefully the money, and then take the Lincoln Highway from coast to coast, fulfilling a dream of Billy’s. They make it to New York with the help and protection of a fellow hobo, Ulysses, who left his wife and son after the war and has been wandering ever since. Billy, reads him the story of Ulysses from Professor Abernathe’s book, and in a series of events, Professor Abernathe and Ulysses meet, discussing whether this Ulysses might be reunited with his wife as was the Ulysses of mythology. This encounter, catalyzed by Billy, was one of the high points of the book, capturing the arc of failure, struggle and hope each character pursues.
While all this happens, Emmett pursues Duchess and his car. But he’s not the only one pursuing. Sally, fed up with waiting for them to call to say they’ve arrived safely, and fed up with her domestic life, takes off in pursuit of them.
All of these characters are striving against thwarted destinies to make something of their lives. Billy wants to find the mother who left him. Emmett wants to use construction skills to make a life in a new place by re-habbing and flipping houses, not unlike what he’d been doing before prison. Sally is tired of doing for other men and wants to do for herself. Duchess envisions owning a restaurant like one in which he worked. And Woolly? It seems he would string together a life of “perfect days” untroubled by the demands of his station in life. The Lincoln Highway goes both east and west. Sometimes you have to go backward to go forward, as in the chapter numbering of this book. Sometimes, to get to California, you have to go through New York, uncertain whether you will make your way back, but continuing to hope.