Emmett, in possession of a true American dream, has no use in a getaway, but he agrees to drive the fugitives to the Omaha bus station, a few hours east, a manageable little setback for his project. Californian. (He continues to count the numbers in his head, revising his ETA) The Duchess, the novel’s main agent of chaos and digression, asks for a little detour to an orphanage where he lived. After barging through a window to deliver strawberry jams to the orphans, he steals Emmett’s Studebaker and, with Woolly, begins the getaway.
At this exhilarating stage, California disappears, the novel travels steadily east by car and train, and Towles embarks on the kind of episodic, exuberant tale found in Homeric myth or epic. The novel opens wide, detours generate detours, the point of view widens and turns. As with Zeno’s spire, contemplated by Emmett at one point, the novel’s many journeys are “infinitely cut in half.” The distance is subdivided and the arrival delayed. Stories proliferate and intersect, as do the characters, who are diverse in many ways except genre. (The book lacks a prominent female traveler, and readers might wish that Towles had done more with the gendered traditions of adventure and domesticity.) It’s tempting to talk about the cast of the book’s minor characters, though we learn gradually are no secondary characters. Each of them, Towles suggests, is the central protagonist of an ongoing adventure that is both unique and universal.
Duchess, the mover of the book, seeks her father, seeks atonement and retribution, seeks that safe full of money in the Adirondacks. Emmett is looking for Duchess and her Studebaker, as are the police. Billy befriends a black veteran named Ulysses who has been on the train for years since returning from the war, with his return home constantly being postponed. Abacus Abernathe, the author of Billy’s beloved compendium, sits on the 55th floor of the Empire State Building and brought back from his narrative perch in the world. The travel anthology is a touchstone for Billy and for Towles, who seeks to demonstrate the deep entanglement of history and life, the way each generates the other.
At nearly 600 pages, “The Lincoln Highway” is remarkably lively, remarkably dynamic. Although dark shadows fall over its final chapters, the book is imbued with light, wit, and youth. Many novels of this size are about telescopes, but this big book is a microscope, focused on a small sample of a large set. Towles has cut off a tiny bit of existence – 10 Wayward Days – and when we look through his lens, we see that this brief gap is full of stories, grand as legends.