The Lincoln Highway is an historical fiction/coming of age story packed with imaginative and masterful storytelling that paints a vivid portrait of 1950s America.
Amor Towles is one of my favorite authors, even though he’s only written a total of three novels including The Lincoln Highway. His other books, Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow, are two novels I highly recommend. His works are full of decency and a respect for previous times, which I find refreshing. My only complaint is that he doesn’t write faster, but what he lacks in quantity he makes up for in quality.
The Lincoln Highway is a bit of a departure from his previous novels because it begins in the Midwest in the 1950s. In the opening scene, 18-year-old Emmett Watson is being driven to his home in Nebraska by the warden of the Kansas juvenile detention center Emmett was just let out of. He was in there for punching and unintentionally killing another teenager.
There’s nothing to keep Emmett in Nebraska – his father recently died and the family farm is in foreclosure – so he and his 8-year-old brother, Billy, decide to follow the Lincoln Highway to San Francisco, where they’ll get a fresh start and hopefully find their estranged mother.
But their plans are thwarted by two escaped juvie inmates, Duchess and Woolly. Instead of heading west, Emmett and Billy find themselves on an action-packed detour to New York City.
Their journey is full of novel situations and memorable characters, including a young grifter (Duchess) with a warped sense of honor, a lost young dreamer (Woolly), a wise nun, a dastardly “pastor,” and a tragic train hopper named Ulysses.
The character development in The Lincoln Highway was unusually strong. The author made all the characters come alive through their speech, actions, body language, and vivid memories. I particularly liked the Watson brothers – Emmett and Billy. Emmett is a practical and honorable stoic (most of the time) and Billy is a wise and personable little boy. They make a great team. And poor Woolly tugged at my maternal heartstrings.
Every chapter is like a well-crafted short story. Mr. Towles didn’t take any shortcuts when he wrote this book. It’s obvious that he spent careful time creating a remarkable tale. But is it too much of a good thing? At almost 600 pages, it’s a long book and towards the end I found myself wishing for a conclusion instead of savoring each chapter. But does that mean the book is too long or that my attention span is too short? Probably a little of both.
Overall, I give The Lincoln Highway an enthusiastic thumbs up. If you’ve read it, let me know what you thought of it.