“The Lincoln Highway” is Amor Towles’ third novel. His previous books are “The Rules of Civility” and “A Gentleman in Moscow.” All three are bestsellers. Set in 1954, “The Lincoln Highway” is considered by many to be his best.
The book’s style is to have each chapter told by different characters. Some readers do not like this style. In this book, I find it works well.
The story is about 18-year-old Emmett Watson, who was incarcerated in a juvenile detention work camp. He was released early because his father died from cancer. His extremely smart 8-year-old brother Billy was cared for by a neighbor’s teenage daughter, Sally. Now that Emmett is free, the two must plan for the future. Emmett wants to be able to support himself and Billy. Billy wants to go to San Francisco to find their mother who abandoned them years ago. On her way to California, she sent her sons postcards from various tourist sites along the Lincoln Highway. Billy is convinced they can find her. The plan is to drive Emmett’s Studebaker to California on the Lincoln Highway. Before they can depart, two of Emmett’s fellow inmates (Duchess and Woolly) show up with a different idea. Duchess and Woolly have escaped the work camp and want Emmett’s help.
Duchess was raised by his father, a vaudeville actor. Woolly is the black sheep of a wealthy Northeastern family. Duchess wants to exact vengeance on those who hurt him. Woolly appears to have either a learning disability, drug addiction or both. His family doesn’t think he is ready to receive his trust fund. Duchess and Woolly have a scheme to travel to the Adirondacks to take Woolly’s trust fund from the family safe. Duchess and Woolly “borrow’ Emmett’s Studebaker and head east.
Emmett and Billy decide to follow them to retrieve the car. They hop a train heading east. Along the way, they meet a variety of characters. Some include a dishonest preacher, vagabonds, vaudeville actors, ladies of the night and the richest and the poorest of New York. Later, Sally joins the mission.
As the book progresses, the reader discovers much more about the characters and the reasons Emmett, Duchess and Woolly were placed in the detention camp. Towles also addresses how a single action can alter a person’s future. Towles teases out the details as the trip progresses. This is a fast-paced novel, a book full of adventure and very compelling.