It’s June 1954, and eight-year-old Billy lives with a neighbor in small-town Nebraska while his brother Emmett serves time in juvenile detention. At the start of Amor Towles’s third novel, The Lincoln Highway, following Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow, Emmett is released early after the death of his father and escorted home by the warden.
Wishing to escape the town that remembers the fairground incident that landed him in detention for involuntary manslaughter, he and Billy decide to leave their father’s failed farm and head for California in Emmett’s only possession, a 1948 Studebaker Land Cruiser. But on the eve of their departure, Emmett is joined by Duchess and Woolly, two escaped delinquents from juvenile detention. Unbeknownst to Emmett, they had stowed themselves in the trunk of the warden’s car. Emmett’s plans for the future are no longer his own.
The misadventure continues when they all take to the road in the morning. Over the course of a ten-day road trip to California (sort of: they head east to New York) the boys encounter an improbable cast of heroes and villains. Towles artfully weaves critiques of racism, consumerism, affluence, and rootlessness into the text.
Although women’s voices are scarce, two that appear offer some of the novel’s keenest insights. Sally, the neighbor who cared for Billy, gets three pages of dialogue on the ordeal of making strawberry preserves, an old-fashioned chore that leaves her perspiring after a long, hot day in the kitchen. It is her metaphor for life: “Saying please and thank you is plenty old-fashioned. Getting married and raising children is old-fashioned. Traditions, the very means by which we come to know who we are, are nothing if not old-fashioned.”
Toward the end of the book, Woolly’s sister, Mrs. Whitney, another perceptive woman, muses that vice in too great a portion can hamper a life, but virtue can cause sorrow as well: “If you take a trait that by all appearances is a merit – a trait that is praised by pastors and poets, a trait that we have come to admire in our friends and hope to foster in our children – and you give it to some poor soul in abundance, it will almost certainly prove an obstacle to their happiness.” Her sorrow for her bighearted, disaster-causing brother Woolly and her predicament with Dennis, her “too smart, too confident, or too hardworking” husband, weigh heavily.
There is poignancy in Mrs. Whitney’s words: we all know people who, while not outright evil, take more than they should, let others clean up their mess, and sap the strength of those around them. But characters such as Sally, Mrs. Whitney, and the always honorable Emmett remind us that there are also plenty of people who give more than they take, forgive when they shouldn’t, and carry those who fall. This reader’s only disappointment was a too-abrupt ending.