Early on in Amor Towles’ latest novel, “The Lincoln Highway,” a character named Duchess recalls wisdom he received at a young age while living at Saint Nicholas’ Home for Boys.
Sister Agnes had sermonized about wrongs committed versus injustices received — and the guilt and indignation resulting from each. “Since it’s these debts — those we’ve incurred and those we’re owed – that keep us stirring and stewing,” realizes Duchess later, “the only way to get a good night’s sleep is to balance the accounts.”
This desire to balance accounts sets Duchess on a boisterous journey — one of many winding through the pages of Towles’ immersive, but ultimately uneven follow-up to his immensely popular second novel “A Gentleman in Moscow.”
It’s 1954 in America’s heartland. Alongside Duchess, a philosopher-thief of good heart and bad judgment, travel three other boys with their own agendas in a 1948 Studebaker. Woolly, a privileged, gentle soul undone by his father’s death, searches for “a one-of-a-kind kind of day.” Moral, thoughtful Emmett, having paid a debt to society, itches to build a new life with his younger brother Billy far from his family’s foreclosed Nebraska farm.
It’s Billy’s mission that lands the group on the road. Earnest, open, and rarely without his treasured “Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers,” Billy yearns to follow the postcard-mapped path of their mother. In 1946, she left for San Francisco – for good – by way of the Lincoln Highway.
Built in 1912, the highway was the first in America to stretch coast-to-coast. Connecting Times Square in New York with South Bend, Indiana; Chicago; Omaha, Nebraska; and Cheyenne, Wyoming, the route embodies the escape the quartet seeks – if only for a few hours. Soon, plans go awry, side trips distract, characters disperse – and readers may wonder where the Studebaker will surface next.
Towles toggles the narrative between the four boys, plus a passel of secondary voices including Ulysses, a Black World War I veteran riding the rails; Pastor John, a conniving charlatan; and Sally, the no-fuss neighbor who’s more than ready for her own new path. The characters’ many vignettes, musings, and histories make for entertaining reading, even as the novel’s bigger plot points start to fray. Along with a perplexing structure, the novel’s abrupt ending cheats several characters out of their potential for growth.
Late in the book, Sally considers “the mystery of our will to move.” Is it vice or virtue that compels some to stay put and others to wander? It’s a question rich with possibility and complexity; for some, “The Lincoln Highway” and its many detours may not explore it far enough.