This is my third Amor Towles book; The Rules of Civility was a treat from beginning to end and while A Gentleman in Moscow wallowed in the perfection of that gentleman, it too was irresistible. And once again, I find that when you are in the clutches of an Amor Towles book, it’s hard to resist.
Set in 1954, the story unfolds in chapters told by or focusing on each character that end just as something important is happening, creating that page-turner feeling. We meet Emmett Watson first, an 18-year-old who has been released from a juvenile work farm early because his father died. He had struck a bully who died as a result of the blow in a freakish accident. Emmett, the warden driving him home, the next door neighbor, his daughter, and Emmett’s 8-year-old brother Billy are all kindly, lovable folks. Then we meet Duchess and Woolly, who stowed away in the trunk of the warden’s car to escape from the work farm. Duchess, unlike Emmett, tells the story from his point of view, and Trouble, with a capital T, looms.
Emmett understands that he must leave his hometown in Nebraska and has a plan to begin a new life elsewhere with his young brother. Billy wants to go to California so they plan to head west on the Lincoln Highway. But there’s Trouble to deal with. Duchess in short order steals their car and heads east to New York; Duchess is a lying thief one minute and a kind generous guy the next. His justifications are seamless. As he and Woolly (who in current terms is neurodivergent and addicted to “medicine,”) make their way east, Emmett and Billy ride a freight train.
The train adventures include Billy making friends with a Black man named Ulysses who saved Billy’s life. Billy explains to Ulysses that he is not named for the Civil War general, but that Greek fellow who wandered for 10 years after the Trojan War before making his way home to his wife. This Ulysses had been wandering across the country for years after not finding his wife and daughter when he left the army after the war ended in 1945. Billy reassured Ulysses that he would be able to find her, just like the Greek fellow.
The outlandish and yet satisfying adventures continue in NYC. While searching for his father, Duchess came across Patrick FitzWilliam, whose best years were those when he played Santa at the holiday parties of, as Duchess says, the “Van Whozens, Van Whyzens, and Van What’s-its.” And later he said, “Needless to say, when it came to celebrating the birth of Jesus in this circle, money was no object. Fitzy was often booked for three appearances on a single night. Walt Whitman was sent the showers, and Fitzy went ho-ho-hoing all the way to the bank.” This was a fun little diversion.
We get to know Woolly’s family through his visit with his sister who was almost as sweet and vague as Woolly himself. It was at her house that after a lovely dinner for the group of four who left Nebraska together (plus Sally, the neighbor’s daughter) cooked by the ever-surprising Duchess, that the reckoning begins. Sarah and her husband Dennis return and Dennis is beside himself to find that not only has Woolly escaped the work farm, but he and his friends have used four bottles of Château Margaux ’28 to learn the magic trick of removing a cork from the bottom of an empty bottle.
The end arrives in a whirlwind and when I considered whether it was a satisfying story, I concluded that while I was glad that Emmett, Billy, and Sally were headed west on the Lincoln Highway at last, there was no reason to ponder long on the meaning of the whirlwind.
Amor Towles, The Lincoln Highway, Viking (Penguin Random House), 2021, 576 pages (I read the kindle version). Available at the public library.