I now have read all three of Amor Towles’ novels, each published five years apart. The stories are as different as they can be, but all are gems in their own right. Towles’ newest, The Lincoln Highway, confirms to me that he is of one of the great novelists of our time.
This road-trip tale, set over 10 days in 1954, begins with a sheriff driving 18-year-old Emmett Watson to his home in Nebraska from a juvenile work farm. Emmett is released early because his father died, leaving no family to watch over his 8-year-old brother, Billy. Their mother had abandoned the family shortly after Billy was born.
Emmett arrives to the family farm in foreclosure. Once he is reunited with Billy, they decide to head out to California to start a new life. Billy is convinced his mother is there, because the last postcard she sent them after she left was from San Francisco. Billy notices all nine of the postcards were mailed along the Lincoln Highway, and he proposes they travel it to get to their destination. Dedicated in 1913, the Lincoln Highway ran coast-to-coast from Times Square in New York City west to Lincoln Park in San Francisco.
Their plans are soon upended when two of the boys from the work farm show up, having stowed away in the sheriff’s trunk. Duchess wants to go to New York, where Woolly’s rich family has stashed $150,000 in a safe in their summer lodge. Readers get to go along for the adventure through 1950s America by car and train-hopping.
The characters are memorable and likable, and they take turns telling the story from their point of view. Emmett is serious and hard-working, determined to make a new life for himself and his brother. Billy is precocious and incredibly smart. Duchess is charismatic and devious. Woolly is endearing and always feels like he doesn’t fit in anywhere. Over the 10 days readers learn about the fascinating backstories of Duchess and Woolly. Minor characters are equally compelling, including Ulysses, a black veteran who rides the rails, and Abacus Abernathe, the author of Billy’s favorite book, A Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers.
This marvelous adventure story plays at many emotions, from hilarious to frightening to sad. The writing is exquisite. I hope I don’t have to wait another five years for a new Amor Towles book, but I will wait if I must. It will be worth it. In the meantime, if you haven’t read A Gentleman in Moscow or Rules of Civility, what are you waiting for?
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