Lincoln Highway Cover

Confucius said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”

In Amor Towles new novel, “The Lincoln Highway,” the journey of brothers Emmett, 18, and Billy Watson, 8, begins with the first of many missteps. The plan was to leave their foreclosed Nebraska farm and drive the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco in search of their fortune and their long-missing mother.

On June 12th of 1954, Emmett had been released early from the Salina juvenile detention center after his father’s death and was transported back to the failed farm by the center’s warden. Unbeknownst to anyone, the warden also transported two stowaways in the trunk of his car. Duchess and Woolly, barracks mates of Emmett’s at the center, had successfully plotted their unauthorized early release from Salina.

Thus begins the unraveling of Emmett and Billy’s journey and the beginning of Towles’ imaginative and twisted tale. It presents like a delightful adult mashup of the Hardy Boys and Huckleberry Finn. A dizzying phalanx of characters is hurled at the reader, each with their own oddities and foibles.

The 10 chapters are offered in descending numerical order, with narrative points of view switching from one character to another, often describing the same actions through their different lenses. The count-down of chapters – 10…9…8…etc. – reflects young Billy’s advice for his older brother to count down from 10 to 1 whenever his temper flares. If it seems odd that the younger sibling is giving this advice, well, Billy Watson may be the most precocious 8-year-old in the history of literature! His vivid imagination is fueled by his constant companion, a book, “A Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers and Other Intrepid Travelers” by Professor Abacus Abernathe. Billy had read the book’s 26 chapters, which profile both historical and mythical figures from A (Achilles) to Z (Zorro), 25 times, and is, therefore, wise beyond his years.

While The Lincoln Highway is mirthful, there are some serious and dark undertones. The Watson boys father has just died and their mother abandoned them years earlier. Duchess and Woolly, the brother’s traveling companions for much of the journey, have serious family issues to either address or ignore. There is much smashing of heads in the plot by fists or blunt instruments.

At 571 pages in length, “The Lincoln Highway” is a very long journey and Towles appears to realize this. Deep into the book, page 417, the author in describing Professor Abernathe declares, “What’s more, he was not the sort to hurry you along because time was money, or of the essence, or a stitch in nine, or what have you.” This clearly applies to Towle’s fiction style as well. Readers may, at a point, “… fidget in their seats” as he also says in this description.

Ahhh, but what joy your patience will give you!

Side characters such as Townhouse, Mandrake the Magic, Ma Belle and Ulysses are well worth the many detours. Like the mythical Ulysses, Emmett and Billy’s journey often gets blown way off course, but the abundant skills of Amor Towles anchors the tale to its conclusion.

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