Upon the death of his father from cancer, 18-year-old Emmett Watson is released from a juvenile work farm in Kansas and returns home to small town Nebraska, where he is reunited with his 8-year-old brother, Billy. Given a second a chance, they embark on a journey to a new life, first in the footsteps of their long-gone mother, then in the tyre tracks of their stolen Studebaker.
Amor Towles joins the dots between Tom Sawyer, Steinbeck and Stand By Me and finds it forms a straight line through the American continent and century. The Lincoln Highway exists on this continuum, a tale of Americana in which the open road is an invitation to adventure, wisdom, and redemption.
Encounters along the way serve to prompt and provoke our male protagonists into developing a moral compass, their reactions placing them on a spectrum of fabular archetypes (Billy even carries with him a well-thumbed compendium of heroes). It’s a well-trodden path, in books and road movies, one Towles isn’t keen to stray from. He’s working within a tradition.
Towles is a master storyteller. Even in interviews, he speaks – seemingly off the cuff - in elegant, fully formed sentences that give his thoughts cinematic scope and clarity. This coming-of-age mid-century road trip benefits from this eloquence and facility with language, which carry the reader through over six hundred mostly unsurprising pages, but there only so far you can travel on style alone.
Like about 4 million others, I enjoyed The Rules of Civility and A Gentleman in Moscow, yet this one left me somewhat indifferent. In The Lincoln Highway, the line between mythological quotation and storytelling cliché blurs more than once. Perhaps I don’t feel that nostalgia for the moral certitude of 1950s America, but its old-school conservative world view and trite-adjacent home truths stuck too close to the middle of the road, as it were.