Summary and Review: The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles

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The Lincoln Highway by Amor Towles is a book I’ve really been looking forward to ever since it was announced. Like many people, I really enjoyed his previous novel A Gentleman in Moscow, and I’ve been eager to revisit his writing.

Blue 1948 Studebaker Land Cruiser

Blue 1948 Studebaker Land Cruiser

The Lincoln Highway is an adventure story through and through. It tells the story of two brothers with a plan to travel down the Lincoln Highway from Nebraska to San Francisco, but their plans quickly get derailed from the onset. I loved the tone and the atmosphere of this novel. The sense of adventure and knowing that the book has exciting times and surprises in store for you made it easy for me to look forward to what was coming next. I also appreciated the journey that Towles takes each character on. He slowly reveals their character and backstory in a way that’s surprising and engaging. Every section of this book feels crafted for a particular purpose, to bring the story forward in a particular way, though you may not realize it at the time. Like in A Gentleman in Moscow, Towles sets up specific plot points early on throughout the story, knowing he plans on revisiting them in a way that feels gratifying when you reach the later parts of the book.

Some Criticisms

That said, I didn’t fall in love with this book the way I was hoping to. In terms of the main character, Emmett felt a little vanilla to me, and both Duchess and Woolly were a little much, in that they were too devious or too ridiculous. Something about them just felt a little cartoonish to me. Meanwhile, Billy is the stereotypical precocious and overly-curious kid that movies and books love to cast in their stories. Moreover, the whole idea that Emmett would ever take Billy on this incredibly dangerous trip when there is a perfectly safe and caring place he could stay requires a lot of suspension of disbelief. It made it a lot harder to take this book seriously. It’s a book that seems to want to feel grand and epic in scope — four adventurers traveling across the United States! — but doesn’t quite get there. The stakes seem pretty low throughout the book. Emmett and Billy could easily just go home and hang out until their car is returned, and Duchess and Woolly are up to a bunch of stuff but that seems like that’s their modous operandi anyway. As a result, it felt more like a hum-drum road trip with some hijinks along the way. The frequent references to things like Shakespeare, Odysseus, and other legendary characters only underscored for me how small and less emotionally-impactful this story feels. I also found the side characters a little disappointing. Apart from the four main characters, the two side characters are Sally, a young woman, and Ulysses, a black vagrant. Sally does a lot of home-maker-y things, and she is Billy and Emmett’s neighbor. Ulysses is an intimidating black man whose wife and child left him, and he scares off people that threaten Billy and Emmett. I think Towles meant well in trying to include these characters, but there’s a stereotypical-ness to them, and Towles doesn’t develop these characters enough to really explain why they are so determined to assist Emmett and Billy. Emmett and Billy don’t seem to do anything to deserve their care and attention, but for whatever reason they both seem hell-bent on going out of their way to help Emmett and Billy on their journey. Sally does deliver some pretty solid narration, but I wish her character had been given more complexity or at least some sense of her own motivations and desires.

Read it or Skip it?

If you’re someone who loves a good adventure or a journey à la The Adventures of Tom Sawyer or something of that vein, The Lincoln Highway will probably be right up your ally. It really captures that excitement of not knowing who they’ll come across next or what hijinks the various characters will get up to. However, as I said before, I liked it, but I didn’t love it. While there was a fun sense of adventure, the story didn’t feel as epic as it seemed to be trying to be, and it didn’t seem to have a strong emotional pull to make me fall in love with it. For all the reasons mentioned above, all the characters were some combination of too boring, too cartoonish or too stereotypical (and therefore underdeveloped) in way that made it hard for me to really root for any of them. I think most book clubs could enjoy this though. Like I said, there’s plenty of carefully planned plotting and fun hijinks in store if you decide to read it! See The Lincoln Highway on Amazon.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you describe Emmett and Billy’s personalities? Why do you they are similar or different?
  2. What do you think about Emmett’s attitude toward Sally? What do you think of her expectations of him (being upset he didn’t tell her he was leaving, wanting him to check in with her in New York, etc.) and do you think they are fair?
  3. Emmett is conscientious about wanting to protect his brother from illegal activities and less savory elements of life, but Billy seems to romanticize these things. What do you think about the decisions he makes?
  4. Why do you think the characters in the book are so concerned with settling debts and dealing with their obligations?

Add tags: (The book chapters count down from 10 to 1.)

Chapters 10 and 9 open with Emmett Watson returning home to Morgen, Nebraska (dropped off by Warden Williams) after having spent a year in juvenile detention for killing Jimmy Snyder. Jimmy was a troublemaker who had goaded Emmett into punching him. It caused Jimmy to fall and hit his head on a cinder block, resulting in his death.

In present day, Emmett learns his father’s farm is being foreclosed upon by the bank. When Emmett tells his younger brother, Billy, that they will need to move, Billy suggests they move to San Francisco. Billy has recently found some old postcards indicating their mother (who left them 8 years ago) once took the journey there down the Lincoln Highway. Billy hopes she might still be living there now. While Emmett thinks his brother’s plan of tracking down their mother in California is crazy, he knows that California (due to its high population growth) is a good place for him to pursue his goal of achieving financial stability by renovating and selling houses. After some research, he agrees to the plan.

They’re soon interrupted by the presence of Duchess and Woolly, two guys Emmett knows from juvie. Duchess spent a few years in an orphanage, being raised by nuns, after his father abandoned him there for two years when he was 8. Meanwhile, Woolly is a troubled rich kid.

They explain that they stowed away in Warden Williams’s trunk and have a proposition for Emmett. Woolly is the beneficiary of a trust fund that should have come under his control now that he’s 18. However, his brother-in-law Dennis had him declared “unfit”. There’s also a wall safe at his great-grandfather’s house in upstate New York that contains roughly the same amount of money as his trust fund, $150,000. They want Emmett to go with them to help Woolly get the cash, and in exchange they’ll split the money evenly among the three of them. Emmett immediately declines.

The next morning, Sally Ransom, their neighbor and a former romantic interest of Emmett’s drops by. She’s upset to learn from Duchess that Emmett plans on leaving. In town, Jake Snyder (brother of Jimmy Snyder) accosts Emmett, trying to goad him into a fight and then punching Emmett a few times, though Emmett doesn’t fight back.

In Chapters 8 and 7, they hit the road with the plan of dropping Woolly and Duchess off at the bus stop in Omaha before Emmett and Billy continue on to San Francisco. However, Duchess derails the plan. He asks them to make a pit stop at the orphanage he grew up in. There, he causes a commotion and then drives off with Woolly in Emmett’s car (and inadvertently with all of Emmett’s money), headed to New York. He promises to be back soon and to give Emmett his share of the cash when they return.

With no money and no mode of transportation, Emmett and Billy hitch a ride on a train to go to New York to track down Duchess and Woolly. On the train, Billy nearly gets his silver coin collection stolen from him by a fake pastor, “Pastor” John, but Pastor John is stopped by Ulysses — a black WWII vet who is also hitching a ride on the train. Ulysses is a seasoned boxcar traveler, who has been iterant ever since he returned from the war to learn that his wife left him.

Billy gets to know Ulysses, and he tells Ulysses the legend of the Greek hero Ulysses. Billy has been reading an abridged version of from a big red book authored by someone named Professor Abacus Abernathe. The book features a number of great travelers and adventurers, both real and fictional.

Meanwhile, Duchess and Woolly have driven as far as Illinois by now. Duchess plans to start a new life after all of this and wants to clear out any debts he owes or owed to him before he does. They make a quick stop at the house of the retired former warden, Ackerly, who used to beat them. Duchess hits him on the head with a cast-iron skillet and leaves, noting that Ackerly’s debt to him has been paid.

In Chapters 6 and 5, they all make their way to New York. Duchess’s goes looking for his father (Harry), who is trying to evade him after learning that Duchess escaped from juvie. Duchess finds Fitzy FitzWilliams, an old friend of Harry. We learn that when Duchess was 16, he framed by Harry for a number of thefts in the hotel they were living in (which Harry had actually committed). Fitzy lied in a statement to corroborate Harry’s lie. In present day, Duchess guilts Fitzy into giving him Harry’s current address in Syracuse.

Afterwards, Duchess goes to visit Townhouse, who was released from Salina a while ago. He wants to settle accounts with him, since Duchess owes Townhouse for having gotten Townhouse in trouble once. The two get squared away, and before Duchess leaves, he impulsively gives Townhouse’s cousin Maurice the keys to Emmett’s Studebaker (he thinks of it as a good deed that he’s doing).

Elsewhere, Ulysses takes Billy and Emmett to a vagrant camp where they can stay for the night. Emmett goes into the city to track down Duchess, who knows is looking for his father. He gets Harry’s former address from his agency. It leads him to Fitzy, who tells him about Duchess’s past and also gives him Harry’s Syracuse address.

Meanwhile, Woolly visits his sister Sarah who says that she has talked to Warden Williams, who is offering Woolly minimal consequences if he returns to juvie immediately. And back at that camp, Ulysses and Billy are attacked by Pastor John. However, Ulysses kills him and drops his body into the river.

In Chapters 4 and 3, Emmett goes to visit Townhouse, who warns that the police recently came by looking for Duchess. He thinks it’s about something more serious than Duchess’s escape from Salina. He also returns Emmett’s Studebaker to him, and his friends offer to repaint it since the police seem to have associated as blue Studebaker with whatever crime Duchess committed. Townhouse then directs Emmett to where Duchess will be that night, which turns out to be a raunchy circus show attached to a brothel. Emmett confronts Duchess and tries to get him to leave. However, Duchess drugs Emmett, leaves him at the brothel and ducks out.

Before heading to Sarah’s place, the group passes by the location described in Billy’s big red book as the offices of Professor Abacus Abernathe. They go to visit him and see that he’s a real person. Billy tells Abacus about his own adventures. Abacus asks to meet Ulysses, and the two become acquainted.

Back at Sarah’s place, Emmett eventually shows up. However, because he wasn’t able to check in with Sally as he’d promised earlier, Sally ends up heading to New York (after attempting to call them) to check on Emmett and Billy. She arrives soon after Emmett. They all have a delightful dinner, but soon Dennis and Sarah come home. Dennis is furious to learn that Woolly is not at Salina. He demands that Woolly go work for one of him stockbroker friends after he finishes his sentence.

In Chapter 2, Woolly and Duchess sneak out early and make their way to Woolly’s great-grandfather’s house in the Adirondacks in order to take the $150K from the safe. However, when they arrive, it turns out Woolly doesn’t know the combination (and it never occurred to him there would be one). Then, as Duchess tries to hack open the safe, Woolly takes a bunch of pills and kills himself.

Elsewhere, Abacus thinks about how Billy has reawakened his desire for adventure. He decides to go with Ulysses to travel via boxcar and seek out his own adventure.

In Chapter 1, Emmett arrives at Woolly’s great-grandfather’s house to find Woolly dead and Woolly still trying to get the safe open. Emmett and Duchess scuffle, and Emmett knocks Duchess out. (He doesn’t kill Duchess because he had made a promise to Billy not to lash out again.) Meanwhile, Billy guesses the safe combination based on something Woolly had said about his great-grandfather loving the 4th of July. They also find Woolly’s will, splitting up his $150K trust fund equally between Billy, Emmett and Duchess.

The book ends with Emmett leaving Duchess in a leaky boat with no oaks and with his $50K share in cash. As Duchess tries to get to the money before it flies away, he drowns. Meanwhile, Emmett and Billy head for San Francisco. Sally joins them (platonically) so she can start a new life out there as well.

For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary.

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