The Lincoln Highway follows Amor Towles’ masterpiece that is A Gentleman in Moscow, which I highly recommend. That’s a hard act to follow and this new novel is bigger and more ambitious with a wide cast of characters, multiple viewpoints and a storyline that deliberately goes in the wrong direction. Where the Moscow gentleman was confined to one hotel for almost the entire book, this 580 page monster of a story roams halfway across America.
It is in the style of a classic 1950s American roadie and features a group of footloose young men and a couple of cars.
The story starts with Emmett, just released from juvenile for involuntary manslaughter but, we can tell immediately, a good guy. With his father recently deceased and the farm sold he collects his eight-year-old brother Billy, a stack of inheritance cash and his car—a powder blue, four door hardtop 1948 Studebaker Land Cruiser—and they head out to find their mother.
The boys live in the middle of the USA, in Nebraska, where their dad failed to make a go on the farm. Just to the north is the iconic Lincoln Highway, the first road to run right the way across America. Their aim, following a series of postcards, is to trace their mother to Los Angeles where they are sure she will be watching the fourth of July fireworks. What could possibly go wrong?
Now, this is where, as a reader, I fall off. Towles has given us the premise. Two boys on a roadie heading west to LA. There’s a map. I have the geography in my head. We will either find, or not find mum. But immediately, two escaped offenders from juvenile join them, “borrow” the car and the cash and head east to New York, forcing Emmett and Billy to jump a train and follow. I plough through adventures and mishaps, multiple viewpoints and developments and all the time I’m trying to pull on the handbrake and turn the car around. I’m waiting for the promised story to start and it doesn’t.
Instead, the boys all give their various takes on the world. Duchess and Woolly are the escapees and Duchess definitely the boss, with a strong story and a skewed life-view that comes straight from what we learn about his dear old dad. Not so much dear, perhaps. Woolley is rich and lost. I confused him with Billy throughout, both are naive (almost Harpo Marx-like) waifs, whose main point is probably to reveal the character of the older boys: Emmett and Duchess.
Other secondary characters also get chapters, which are interesting and memorable stories in themselves, but again make it harder to stick with the book, which no longer even pretends to be the story of two boys off to LA and mum.
I’m glad I didn’t give up on this, though. Like A Gentleman in Moscow, the ending of The Lincoln Highway is everything a novel ending should be. Surprising enough to have me gripping the pages and racing to the conclusion, but also absolutely inevitable. If I’d been looking in the right places I would have seen it coming. Deeply satisfying. And so I am recommending this book because any book that ends with a reader nodding her head a wandering around with a wry smile for hours afterwards deserves to be shared.