The Lincoln Highway
By Amor Towles
Read Dec 2021
This reader’s book club tends to read recently published literary fiction so chose this one for our Jan 2022 discussion. This reader put holds on all formats of the book in two library systems, both of which had purchased multiple copies due to the expected demand for the book following the author’s success with A Gentleman in Moscow. This reader was delighted to get both a large print copy (~650 pages) and an audiobook copy fairly quickly. This reader settled on the audiobook and sent the large print copy on to another eager reader.
This reader did learn about the Lincoln Highway, the first transcontinental road for automobiles in the United States, dedicated in 1913, but the book is really about four young characters in 1954 who are seeking various futures for themselves.
Emmett, 18, newly released from a work-camp after serving a sentence for involuntary manslaughter, and his precocious brother Billy, 8, plan to drive from their family home in Nebraska, now in foreclosure after their father’s death, to San Francisco. Emmett is planning to flip houses there and make enough money to both sustain the business and provide a stable home for his brother. He is wiling to entertain Billy’s plan to find their mother who left them eight years prior but sent postcards to them on her journey to San Francisco. The last one, sent on a July 4th, indicated she planned to spend every July 4th holiday in San Francisco. Thus, their goal is to get to San Francisco and meet her on July 4th. (Where, how, etc TBD….) Billy wants to take the Lincoln Highway to get there and Emmett is fine with that as well.
Their plan is disrupted when they go to the barn sheltering Emmett’s car only to discover that two of Emmett’s workcamp mates had stowed away in the warden’s car that had driven Emmett home. Wallace “Woolly” Wolcott Martin had revealed to his friend Duchess that Woolly’s grandfather had put away $150,000 in cash for him in a safe in the family’s camp in the Adirondacks in New York State. Woolly is willing to get the money and share with Duchess and Duchess is more than happy to accommodate.
Duchess wants Emmett to go to Woolly’s family camp before going to San Francisco. Emmett remains focused on getting to San Francisco but is willing to drop Duchess and Woolly off at a train station so they can start their journey east. Duchess manages to separate Emmett from his car long enough to “borrow” it leaving Billy behind. Thus starts the adventure of Emmett and Billy trying to catch up with Duchess and Woolly to retrieve their car so they can drive to San Francisco.
Over the course of about 650 pages and ten days, we follow this pair of travelers from Nebraska to the Adirondacks via New York City where Duchess stops to visit some old acquaintances and a suburb of New York City where they all end up at Woolly’s sister’s home. Over the course of those pages and days, we learn something of the backstory of all the characters; we meet a number of other characters and learn much of their stories; we hear stories from Billy’s beloved compendium of stories about 24 heros by Abacus Abernathe; we watch Wholly wonder at the sites of New York City he never saw before despite growing up in New York City; we watch Billy learn about the world outside of his limited experiences in Nebraska; we wonder whether the two sets of travelers can actually ever connect; we wonder what will happen if they do.
Certainly, Towls is a clever writer. He has apparently provided some links between this book and his others that fans may notice and enjoy. He is able to confidently write about the wealthy characters and their surroundings. However, despite the length of the book and the time spent on their backstories, the characters sometimes feel fairly flat to this reader, verging on being caricatures: Duchess–the troublemaker from a broken and dysfunctional family raised by a scoundrel father and the whores he visits; Woolly—the hapless friend who is addicted to some kind of “medicine” that keeps him calm and manageable; Emmett—the straight arrow brother focused on getting a fresh start in California; Billy—the precocious brother. The author provides enough backstory for Duchess to encourage you to consider feeling empathy for him. The author provides insufficient detail of Woolly’s story to make clear from what he suffers and why he takes the actions he does at the end of the story. This reader wondered if Woolly’s situation was somewhat like that of Rosemary Kennedy, although that is only this reader’s speculation. Emmett is driven and focused and a good person (the manslaughter he committed was clearly very involuntary and accidental) so the author doesn’t spend too much time with him aside from moving the plot along. Billy is extremely precocious for an eight-year-old but this reader found his naivete and his reactions to events generally believable.
This particular reader was sometimes annoyed by the level of detail provided in what seemed like irrelevant tangents. For example, as Duchess is listening to (someone else’s) records of Frank Sinatra, we listen to him think about how Frank is standing during the song, what he’s wearing, how he’s holding his cigarette, and more. If a reader can take a lot of time reading the book (or have a completely free day or two to fully devote to it), they will likely savor this detail more than did this reader. This reader wondered a number of times why the editor didn’t require some trimming…. The writing gets tighter near the end of the book as we hear from several viewpoints the last few scenes of the story. This reader anticipates that this tighter writing allows reviewers to forget some of the pages that needed editing and for them to provide highly favorable reviews of the book, which this reader agrees are generally merited. More editing would have made this book closer to a “10”, but the book is one that this reader can recommend.