"The Lincoln Highway" | Reviewed by Chris Stuckenschneider
Updated: Oct 25, 2021
With a satisfied sigh and ready smile, I closed the cover on “The Lincoln Highway,” a historical fiction novel that begs for a reread by the incomparable Amor Towles, who garnered fans with his bestseller “A Gentleman in Moscow.”
Much can be said about Towles’ newest, an atmospheric, nostalgic, joy ride into America’s past, when lemonade was served on front porches, Burma-Shave signs sprouted along roads, and citizens rallied round the flag, connected by values found in Norman Rockwell paintings, patriotism and religion the order of the day.
It’s 1954, and Emmett is being driven back to his Nebraska farm by Warden Williams, after Emmett’s stint in a prison in Salina, Kansas. He was incarcerated for an accidental crime—his temper getting the best of him. Now 18 months later, he’s headed back to his home place, his dad having passed, the farm being reclaimed by the bank—back home to be reunited with Billy, his bookish 9-year-old brother, taken in by a neighbor family with a sweet but bossy gal at its helm, Sally, casserole and preserves provider.
Emmett is the tragic hero at center stage in this funny, yet sad story of a journey along the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental highway that stretched from New York City to San Francisco. With the farm gone, and $3,000 in their pockets, secretively stashed away for them by their dad, Emmett and Billy are determined to get to California to reconnect with their mother, who deserted them eight years ago. But a sudden change in plans occurs and the brothers take a different direction, heading to New York City.
Part of the reason for heading east instead of west, lies in two extra fellas along for the ride—Duchess, a flim-flam man if ever there was one, and his sidekick Woolly, who isn’t playing with a full deck and has a pill addiction. They appear quite unexpectedly, having hitched a ride from prison in the trunk of Warden Williams’ car.
Fast-talking Duchess convinces Emmett to take them along, which leads to detours as Duchess revisits his past and settles scores with those who have wronged him, causing Emmett more trouble than he could have possibly imagined.
In chapters told by the main characters, and a couple of minor players, the story rolls along, its numerous asides offering detours in the narrative that mirror the detours on the mad-cap journey, one that begins in Emmett’s beloved, powder-blue Studebaker.
Readers are in for a treat as they experience life on the road in the company of this wholly original and sympathetic foursome. “The Lincoln Highway” is a tour de fore not to be missed.