Amor Towles' follow-up to his bestselling book "A Gentleman in Moscow" arrives on a wave of anticipation, at a time when we long for simpler days. Set in 1950s America, "The Lincoln Highway" is a road novel that celebrates the mythos of an era via a cross-country highway, and it delivers an overwhelming blast of nostalgia that many readers will welcome even if it doesn't add anything new to the genre.
Like the highway, the novel is long, and it winds through adventures in the style of an old-fashioned serial, with an abundance of last-second rescues and romantic philosophizing (about the moral caliber of men who can take a punch, codes of honor and the need to "balance the accounts" in life). The philosophizing does not always spring from the most trustworthy of sources. Still, "The Lincoln Highway" is a romantic novel, not in a passion-and-courtship sense but in its idealization of the era.
The story follows the fortunes of two brothers of a familiar type: strong, silent Emmett and innocent, optimistic Billy. Emmett, 18, has just returned home to Nebraska after serving a sentence at a juvenile work farm (he accidentally killed another boy in a fight). The boys' father is dead, and a neighbor has been caring for Billy.
With the family farm in foreclosure, all that's left for the brothers to do is follow in the footsteps of generations before them: Go West. In California, Emmett hopes to build houses, while Billy believes they will find the mother who abandoned them.
Two escapees from the work farm derail their plan: Woolly, heir of a wealthy New York family; and Duchess, the abandoned son of a traveling actor. Duchess' sociopathic tendencies will present most (though not all) of the novel's conflicts, his actions rerouting the brothers to that other testing ground for dreams: New York City.
Readers hungry for the past will delight in this travelogue's touchstones, which include (but are not limited to) Studebakers, orphans, Phillips 66, foldable road maps, the orange roof atop every Howard Johnson's, Sinatra, homemade preserves, postcards that are not yet vintage but will be, hidden treasure, trains with open boxcars, saintly heroes and dangerous hobos, dutiful but plucky good girls and naughty women with hearts of gold. Don't look for shades of gray; you won't find them. Towles does introduce two intriguing Black characters, but they exist only to serve the brothers' story, which is a shame, since they're both more interesting than stoic, one-dimensional Emmett.
A skeptic might be tempted to view this parade of Americana with a weary eye. Knowing what to make of such a nostalgic surge is hard; social media has sharpened and enhanced our cynicism. But Towles isn't an ironic writer; he's not mocking the American dream. He's reveling in it.
Maybe for the reader, as for Emmett and Billy, the journey is the point. The road is long, after all, and "The Lincoln Highway" ends with unfinished business. What's more American than a sequel?
Connie Ogle is a book critic in Florida.
The Lincoln Highway
By: Amor Towles.
Publisher: Viking, 592 pages, $30.
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