Amor Towles has written a quintessentially American Odyssey, a “coming of age” story, following the adventures of four boys as they adventure out on their own for the first time. Set in 1954, Emmett Watson comes home to a small Texas town from a juvenile detention camp where he was sent for the accidental killing of a classmate. His father died when he was away and the farm is being foreclosed on. Emmett and his younger brother, Billy, decide to head west to California where Billy thinks they will find the mother who left them when Billy was a baby. Almost immediately their plan is derailed by the appearance of two of Emmett’s friends from the detention center, Duchess and Woolley, who stowed away in the warden’s car. Duchess “borrows” Emmett’s car and he and Woolley head to New York City to find Woolley’s inheritance money. Emmett and Billy follow by hopping a ride in a boxcar. This is just the beginning of the many twists and turns their journey takes.
Towles characters, each drawn in detail with intricate backstories, are somehow emblematic of the hopeful, brash time in America following World War II. Each of the boys is pursuing his own dream but each is hobbled by their various pasts. Told with Amor’s usual attention to historical detail, “The Lincoln Highway” is an ambitious novel whose characters reflect the strengths and failings of the American character both in the 1950s and today.