It is June 1954 in Amor Towles’ fine new novel, “The Lincoln Highway.” Eighteen-year-old Emmet Watson and his 8-year-old brother Billy are planning to drive from Nebraska to San Francisco to find their runaway mother and make a new life for themselves after a couple of rough years. Emmet has been released from a prison work farm after serving his sentence for accidentally causing a fatality, their father has died and the family farm is in foreclosure. All they have to do is head west on the Lincoln Highway.
But two escaped work farm associates of Emmet’s, also 18, show up and attach themselves like barnacles for the journey. Suddenly, Emmet and Billy have to go to New York to get to San Francisco.
The two guys on the lam are Duchess and Woolly, and their dispositions steer the road trip. The scampish Duchess has some scores to settle, and the melancholy Woolly mentions a cash inheritance locked in a safe in upstate New York. These two take off in Emmet’s car, leaving Emmet and Billy in pursuit, riding the rails in boxcars.
Both generous and clear-eyed about who he is dealing with, Emmet is concerned with keeping his little brother safe and doing the right thing. Billy is the charming and surprising central force of this novel. He carries with him his beloved book, “Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers.” He attends with delight to the stories he has read and heard, and he shares his heroes with anyone who will listen.
While entertaining the reader with meandering plot and character entanglements, Towles develops a theme familiar from his earlier novels about inheritance. Woolly’s time at various boarding schools speaks to great family wealth, but also neglect. Duchess’ father, a peripatetic vaudevillian actor, abandoned him at an orphanage. Emmet’s own father walked away from a wealthy family to work the land in Nebraska, inspired by the romantic ideal of Emersonian self-reliance.
These inheritances are instructive. Emmet notes what people have inherited, whether in material or moral values, and what they choose to do for themselves. These observations, along with Billy’s gallery of heroic figures, constitute the central dynamic of the book. Billy focuses on how heroes bring about their own fates.
Towles is creating a nuanced, comic vision of America. One key minor character is the wandering Ulysses, whose desire to serve in World War II cost him his wife and child. Another is a Walt Whitman impersonator who looked “every bit the song of himself.” A piratical pastor in a boxcar and two rich, tuxedoed drunks on the same train are like admonitory bookends on the subjects of class and self-determination.
In his previous novel, “A Gentleman in Moscow,” Towles gave us Count Rostov, an aristocrat stripped of his title and wealth and imprisoned by Bolsheviks in a hotel for decades. It was a richly told tale, evoking a dynamic world in miniature. That was satisfying to read in 2016.
But now, as the pandemic drags on, “The Lincoln Highway” is a bracing, heroic adventure for stir-crazy, digitally burned-out readers. Writing for an audience accustomed to smart and fast devices, maps and too much information, Towles uses the pre-digital era brilliantly. His plot twists require characters to be incommunicado, having to rely on their can-do and wits.
At nearly 600 pages, “The Lincoln Highway” is a hefty slab of clever storytelling. Towles plays stylishly with elements of the picaresque, the coming-of-age novel and the epic quest. There is room for bits of Shakespeare, vaudeville theatrics and road trip trivia like the paper place mat maps at Howard Johnson’s restaurants.
The indelible final scene, which I did not see coming, perfectly encapsulates the theme of inheritance, and what choices the characters make about what they are given, to determine their own fates.