The Lincoln Highway
“A vigorous road novel teeming with wild hairpin turns and irresistible, enduring characters . . .”
Amor Towles has written three remarkably different novels linked only by his vivid storytelling, indelible characterization, and his characters’ and stories’ peculiar dislocations in time. Rules of Civility transposed the heady social whirl of Jazz Age Manhattan into the latter years of the Great Depression, while A Gentleman in Moscow chronicled three decades in the life of a Russian aristocrat, frozen in place and time from the moment the Bolshevik Revolution was meant to have eradicated his kind.
Towles’ newest novel, The Lincoln Highway, an enthralling road novel set in the early years of the Eisenhower era that sired the modern Interstate Highway System, takes its name from America’s first transcontinental roadway, built in 1913 and superseded by I-80 in 1956. Likewise, the novel’s opening chapters in 1954 Nebraska invoke not so much the incipient technicolor rock ’n’ roll era as the muted hues and empty Great Plains vistas of Willa Cather and Mildred Walker. And with its evocative scenes of freight-jumping and hobo camps, The Lincoln Highway feels much more like a Depression-era novel than the Gatsby-esque Rules of Civility.
Told in eight distinctive, resonant voices (often describing the same events from different angles), The Lincoln Highway spins the ten-day tale of three 18-year-old reform school boys (one paroled, two escaped) recently liberated from a Salina, Kansas work farm. Principled, level-headed Emmett Watson, convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but released early following his father’s death, returns home to a foreclosed farm in Morgen, Nebraska, with a carefully considered plan to fire up the Studebaker he purchased with his own earnings before his jail sentence, head south, and start fresh in Texas with his eight-year-old brother Billy.
Emmett quickly finds his plans complicated by two things: First, ever-earnest Billy’s insistence that they move to San Francisco to follow the trail of postcards sent from points along the Lincoln Highway that their mother left for them when she abandoned the family years before.
Also throwing a wrench in the works are two fellow inmates, Duchess and Woolly, who materialize on the Watson farm after stowing away in the warden’s trunk for the drive from Salina. Duchess, teeming with bravado, given to mock-Shakespearean theatrics, and possessed of a catastrophically flexible moral compass—all inherited from his ne’er-do-well father, a trained thespian and accomplished con artist and drunk—expresses a genuine admiration for Emmett as a “man of substance” that doesn’t stop him from stealing his friend’s car. Woolly, a cockeyed child of wealth invariably sidetracked by nutty fixations, shares none of Duchess’ guile but proves nearly as adept—however inadvertently—at blowing up Emmett’s plans.
Though only occasionally told in the first person, The Lincoln Highway gives each character’s perspective its due in a wonderful feat of narrative ventriloquism that showcases the ample storytelling gifts evident in Towles’ earlier work. Not only do Emmett, Billy, Woolly, and Duchess share the spotlight; Emmett’s long-suffering neighbor, Sally—who bests even Emmett in hard-won good sense and is as determined as he to shuck off her dead-end life of cooking and cleaning for her father—also has a voice in the story. Towles also shifts occasionally to the viewpoint of a handful of remarkable characters the brothers meet in their travels, including two men Emmett and Billy encounter in a boxcar after losing their car, and head to New York to get it back: a vicious swindler named Pastor John, and a Black World War II veteran named Ulysses who has lost his family and resigned himself to endless wandering.
One of the great things about The Lincoln Highway’s many chapter-by-chapter perspective shifts is what it allows its characters to observe about each other, whether it’s Duchess expressing his awe of Emmett’s unflinching integrity, or Woolly’s knowing take on Duchess: “When it came to telling stories, Duchess was a bit of a Paul Bunyan, for whom the snow was always ten feet deep, and the marching band always outfitted with seventy-six trombones.”
Another recurring presence in the book is Professor Abacus Abernathe, whose Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers—a kid-friendly rendition of classic epics and hero stories—Billy has read 26 times, and always keeps close at hand at. The Compendium chronicles the travels, travails, and exploits of one hero for every letter of the alphabet, from Achilles to Zorro and many in between, mixing myth and legend with fact and fiction with the likes of The Count of Monte Cristo’s Edmond Dantes, Thomas Edison, Sinbad, Leonardo Da Vinci, George Washington, and, of course, Odysseus/Ulysses.
Billy’s insistence on quoting the Compendium frequently and sometimes at great length serves not only to connect The Lincoln Highway to great epic narratives of the past, but also to put its characters into dialogue with the stories, their authors, and the notion of storytelling itself. Emmett, for one, questions Abernathe’s undisciplined juxtaposition of history and myth: “What good could possibly come from mixing the lives of these men with stories of mythical heroes setting sail on fabled waters to battle fantastical beasts? By tossing them together, it seemed to Emmett, Abernathe was encouraging a boy to believe that the great scientific discoverers were not exactly real and the heroes of legend not exactly imagined. That shoulder to shoulder they traveled through the realms of the known and unknown making the most of their intelligence and courage, yes, but also of sorcery and enchantment and the occasional intervention of the gods.”
Likewise, Duchess, a devoted student of acting and stagy oratory as a springboard for deception akin to a pickpocket’s toolkit, but emphatically no fan of reading, instructs Billy, “Not all worth knowing can be found between the covers of compendiums, my boy. Let’s simply say that my academy was the thoroughfare, my primer experience, and my instructor the fickle finger of fate.”
That Towles engineers an in-person encounter bringing together Billy and Ulysses with Professor Abernathe himself is not half so remarkable as the fact that he never overplays the scene. But he does give Abernathe the finest line of all, and perhaps the one most perfectly evocative of a vigorous road novel teeming with wild hairpin turns and irresistible, enduring characters: “How easily we forget—we in the business of storytelling—that life was the point all along.”