Source: Review copy
Publication: 21 October 2021 from Cornerstone
My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy for review
In June, 1954, eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson is driven home to Nebraska by the warden of the juvenile work farm where he has just served fifteen months for involuntary manslaughter.
With his mother long gone, his father recently deceased, and the family farm foreclosed upon by the bank, Emmett plans to pick up his eight-year-old brother Billy and head to California to start a new life.
But when the warden drives away, Emmett discovers that two friends from the work farm have stowed away in the trunk of the warden’s car. They have a very different plan for Emmett’s future, one that will take the four of them on a fateful journey in the opposite direction – to New York City.
Bursting with life, charm, richly imagined settings and unforgettable characters, The Lincoln Highway is an extraordinary journey through 1950s America from the pen of a master storyteller.
What a delightful storyteller Amor Towles is. The Lincoln Highway is a character driven delight that is part coming of age and part never ending road trip.
18 year old Emmett Watson has been granted early release from serving a sentence for involuntary manslaughter in the Salina, Kansas Youth Correction Unit. Warden Williams is driving him to Nebraska where he will have to take care of his somewhat precocious eight year old brother, Billy. Emmett’s father has died from cancer and the bank has foreclosed on the family farm. The boys’ mum left years ago, but Billy has ideas about tracking her down and he fully expects Emmett to get on board.
With nowhere to live and the threat of retribution hanging over him from the actions that sent him to juvie correction in the first place, (he punched a boy at the fair who then tripped, struck his head on a concrete block and died), Emmett decides that heading to California is as good a plan as any. A postcard trail leading to San Francisco offers hope for finding their mother and the plan is that they’ll take Emmett’s baby blue Studebaker and travel to California down the Lincoln Highway. Emmett is a planner and he works out every step of this journey complete with timings breaks and all that’s reuired to get them there by following his trusty map.
Eight year old Billy is ready for this adventure and he’s brought his alphabetic tales of heroes with him. Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers and Other Intrepid Travelers is his guide and mentor and nothing can go wrong in this world of heroes.
But life isn’t that simple. A couple of prison stowaways have plans of their own. The warden is hardly away before the pair of stowaways ‘Duchess’ and the aptly named ‘Woolly’ have plans of their own. Woolly’s family are well off but have stripped him of his trust fund. Duchess and Woolly have plans to get it back, mostly by stealing it, and they need transport to get there.
Duchess is a showman; a decent chap who, like his dad is fond of a drop, but one who cannot think ahead and never stops to consider the impact of the decisions he takes. Dropped off by his dad at an orphanage when he was 8 years old, Duchess has learned to use his charm and smart tongue by telling fantastic stories and Woolly is a simple soul, happy to tag along.
Emmett really does not want to join these two reprobates but to keep the peace he agrees to drive them to the bus station in Omaha; a detour on the way to California, but not such a huge one. But Duchess, who asks for yet another detour on their way to the bus station, steals Emmett’s Studebaker and so Emmett and Billy’s adventures begin.
The Lincoln Highway is really a story about never getting to California. It is a delightful, sometimes fantastical tale about the journey not the destination. It’s the kind of journey where plans are thwarted, mettle is tested and a plethora of weird and wonderful characters cross their paths, including Ulysses, a homeless man endlessly travelling across America in hopes of reaching his family. Billy’s heroes’ book becomes all important so much so that the boys track down the author to the Empire State Building.
Duchess is the first person narrator, but there are a number of different perspectives to keep in your head which helps you to understand the different motivation of each character. As Emmett constantly calculates and recalculates his journey to California the boys find themselves jumping on and off boxcars and into cars for a series of swashbuckling adventures where Billy is able to show his smarts and save them all.
Towles has produced a book that is full of rich and wonderful characters and where having unexpected adventures is the whole point of living your life, not constantly working out how to get where you’re going. It’s a book about the great American dream; full of atmosphere and the hopes and dreams of Americans for the 1950’s. It is full of hope and optimism and the fantastical things that happen are part of the fight between good and evil that is necessary in order for hope to triumph.
Verdict: There are flights of fancy wild and fantastical adventures and some convenient coincidences but The Lincoln Highway is genuinely delightful, rich and entertaining. It has a heart as big as an ocean and characters that spring to life, large and wondrous. I loved it.
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Amor Towles is the author of New York Times bestsellers Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow. The two novels have collectively sold more than 4 million copies and have been translated into more than thirty languages. Towles lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children.