“I guess you haven’t had your adventure yet,” 18-year-old Emmett Watson tells his 8-year-old brother, Billy, who responds, “I think we’re on it now.” And indeed they are, having set out in Emmett’s powder-blue 1948 Studebaker Land Cruiser, planning to head west on the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental roadway. In light of their father’s recent death, their unlikely goal is to track down their mother—who abandoned them years ago—at a July 4th celebration in San Francisco.
After mesmerizing legions of readers with the story of Count Alexander Rostov, sentenced in 1922 to spend the rest of his life in an attic room of a grand hotel in A Gentleman in Moscow (2016), Amor Towles takes to the open road in his superb, sprawling, cross-country saga, The Lincoln Highway. Although this great American road trip is quite a change of pace and scenery, Towles continues to transport readers, immersing them just as completely in the adventures of the Watson brothers he did in the seemingly claustrophobic lives of Count Rostov and his young sidekick, Nina.
Like Nina, young Billy is a creative, intelligent and essential companion to his older brother, and like Rostov, Emmett has had his own brush with the law. As the novel opens in June 1954, Emmett has just been released from an 18-month sentence in a juvenile work camp, having landed on “the ugly side of luck” in a manslaughter case involving a teenage bully. Soon after the Watson brothers start their quest, however, their grand plans are upended by two friends of Emmett’s from the work camp, Duchess and Woolly, who “borrow” the Studebaker and head to New York—forcing Emmett and Billy to stow away on a freight train and head east in hot pursuit.
Packed with drama, The Lincoln Highway takes place in just 10 days, with chapters narrated by a variety of characters. Towles’ fans will be rewarded with many of the same pleasures they’ve come to expect from him: a multitude of stories told at a leisurely pace (the novel clocks in at 592 pages); numerous endearing and sometimes maddening characters; and pitch-perfect plotting with surprises at every turn.
As if that weren’t enough, the novel is chock-full of literary references: a Ralph Waldo Emerson quotation that sets the brothers off on their journey; allusions to The Three Musketeers (Emmett, Duchess and Woolly); a memorable Black World War II veteran named Ulysses; and scenes reminiscent of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Ultimately, The Lincoln Highway is Towles’ unabashed love letter to books and storytelling.
Late in the novel, a character tells Billy, “There are few things more beautiful to an author’s eye . . . than a well-read copy of one of his books.” Towles has created another winning novel whose pages are destined to be turned—and occasionally tattered—by gratified readers.