Emmett, in possession of a genuine American dream, has no use for an escapade, but he agrees to drive the fugitives to the bus station in Omaha, a couple of hours to the east, a small but manageable setback to his California scheme. (He keeps running the numbers in his head, revising his E.T.A.) Duchess, the novel’s primary agent of chaos and digression, requests a short detour to an orphanage where he used to live. After he breaks in through a window to deliver strawberry preserves to the orphans, he steals Emmett’s Studebaker and, with Woolly, commences escapade.
At this exhilarating point, California vanishes, the novel moves steadily east by car and train, and Towles goes all in on the kind of episodic, exuberant narrative haywire found in myth or Homeric epic. The novel opens wide, detours beget detours, the point of view expands and rotates. As with Zeno’s arrow, contemplated by Emmett at one point, the novel’s many journeys are “infinitely bisected.” Distance is subdivided and arrival deferred. Stories proliferate and intersect, as do characters, who are diverse in many ways, save gender. (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 speak of the book’s cast of minor characters, though one gradually learns that there are no minor characters. Each one of them, Towles implies, is the central protagonist of an ongoing adventure that is both unique and universal.
Duchess, the engine of the book, seeks his father, seeks atonement and retribution, seeks that safe full of money in the Adirondacks. Emmett seeks Duchess and his Studebaker, as do the police. Billy befriends a Black veteran named Ulysses who has been riding trains for years since returning from the war, his homecoming persistently deferred. Abacus Abernathe, the author of Billy’s beloved compendium, is found on the 55th floor of the Empire State Building and coaxed from his narrative perch back into the world. The anthology of journeys is a touchstone for Billy and for Towles, who is out to demonstrate the profound entanglement of story and life, the ways in which each generates the other.
At nearly 600 pages, “The Lincoln Highway” is remarkably brisk, remarkably buoyant. Though dark shadows fall across its final chapters, the book is permeated with light, wit, youth. Many novels this size are telescopes, but this big book is a microscope, focused on a small sample of a vast whole. Towles has snipped off a minuscule strand of existence — 10 wayward days — and when we look through his lens we see that this brief interstice teems with stories, grand as legends.