Amor Towles, author of Rules of Civility and a Gentleman in Moscow, is back with a blockbuster of a novel, The Lincoln Highway.
Eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson has been released early from the work house where he served time for involuntary manslaughter after punching a bully who fell and died. Emmett’s father has recently died and the family farm has been foreclosed. His eight-year-old brother Billy, a precocious lad of astounding intelligence, has been cared for by a neighbor until his return. Their mother abandoned the family long ago and Billy is keen to track her down in California after finding some postcards that she’d sent shortly after she left.
After a neighbor advises him to seek a fresh start, Emmett decides that he and Billy will travel to California in his Studebaker where he plans to build houses for an exploding population. Much to his chagrin, two of Emmett’s bunkmates from the workhouse show up and upend his best-laid plans. Duchess, a likeable and persuasive young man, albeit one with a shifting moral center, is the son of a vaudevillian who abandoned him at an orphanage after his mother’s death. Wooly, sweet and affable, though addicted to “little pink pills” is from a wealthy New York family that has taken charge of his trust … in his best interest.
Duchess, ever the inventor of dreams and spinner of tales, decides that they should travel east instead of west — to the Adirondacks where Woolly’s family compound on a remote lake holds a safe with $150,000. They will, Duchess insists, liberate Woolly from the controlling claws of his brother-in-law “Dennis” and for their effort, split the money three ways.
Emmett agrees to drive Woolly and Duchess to the bus station so they can go on their own quest after which he and Billy will travel to California, the land of dreams – both broken and promised.
But Duchess, seeming to agree, then “borrows” Emmett’s car along with the $3,000 legacy from his father hidden under the spare tire in the trunk, assuring Wooly that they will be reunited with Emmett and reward him with his $50,000 for the use of his car and the continued promise of his friendship, for which, Duchess seems to assume, is undying. And so the adventure begins.
In shifting points of view, for the next ten days, readers will meet clowns, actors, madams, circus entertainers, hoboes, and a certain Professor Abacus Abernathy, who has written a compendium of heroes and myths that has become Billy’s bible. The first chapter starts at 10 and works down to the climax, where justice will reign and fools will suffer.
The ride is wild, and the characters are crafty, and the dialogue is laced with Shakespearean references. And Billy, oh Billy, is the smartest one of the bunch.
I highly recommend The Lincoln Highway for fans of adventure stories and unreliable narrators. The shifting points of view keep the plot swiftly moving and the fluid morality of the characters will keep you guessing. One thing is certain. A hero’s journey, like Zeno’s arrow, never moves in a straight line.
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