AMOR TOWLES is best known for his novel A Gentleman in Moscow: a huge bestseller, beloved of book groups around the world. The Lincoln Highway deserves comparable success, even though its genre and scope could not be more different.
Whereas A Gentleman in Moscow burrows through the confined, subterranean, behind-the-scenes world of a luxury hotel, The Lincoln Highway is a classic American road-trip novel. It hitches a ride with On the Road, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and Huckleberry Finn into wide open spaces.
In June 1954, 18-year-old Emmett Watson is driven back home to Nebraska by the kindly warden of the juvenile work camp where he has served a sentence for an understandable crime. His mother has long left, and his father recently died. The family farm has been foreclosed on by the bank. But Emmett has a plan: to pick up his precocious eight-year-old brother, Billy, and head west to California on the highway of the book’s title.
While Emmett is capable and self-reliant, he very soon discovers that he is not the master of his own destiny. For a start, two former inmates have stowed away in the trunk of the warden’s car.
Fast-talking Duchess (a young man, despite his name) and well-born, part-vacant Woolly have their own agendas and travel itinerary. All four, to which we must add the proto-feminist Sally (who has been caring for Billy during Emmett’s sojourn), are on a quest, with individual hopes and dreams to fulfil.
Each of these characters has equal weight, and their inner desires lend a genuinely epic quality to the journey, even if — as Emmett begins to recognise — it shares some of the characteristics of the trajectory of Zeno’s paradoxical arrow, which, despite being in flight, never seems to reach its objective. In Billy’s capacious backpack is Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers and other Heroes, which becomes a kind of spiritual satnav to show how heroes on a quest should behave.
Just ten days stretches to almost 600 pages, but Towles’s myth-making, masterful storytelling is so humane, uplifting, and compelling that I didn’t want the journey to end.
The Revd Malcolm Doney is a writer, broadcaster, and Anglican priest.
The Lincoln Highway
Church Times Bookshop £18