In Amor Towles book, The Lincoln Highway, Billy Watson, young brother of main character Emmett, has been staying with a neighbor, Sally. His brother was serving a sentence at a juvenile work farm, his father recently died, and Billy is living out of his backpack which he keeps very close. In the backpack, along with his collection of silver dollars, is his treasured edition of Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and other Intrepid Travelers. These heroes whether mythical or real are beginning a new journey to complete a task or find something that is lost or to take care of a responsibility that has been entrusted to them. In other words, they are on a quest.
As the brothers are going through their father’s things they discover postcards from their mother, who left them on a memorable Fourth of July. The postcards, addressed to the boys show the stops their mom made on her trip west and the postcards stop at San Francisco, suggesting that that is where she may have settled to begin her new life. The thing they know for sure about her is that she loved fireworks and never missed an Independence Day display. Billy also knew from his mom’s postcard that there was such a spectacle every Fourth in San Francisco. Emmett loves his brother and he wants to please him but he wants to go to Texas. He was an apprentice to a local builder and now he wants to buy and restore houses, but he needs a city that is growing. After some research in the library (it’s the fifties, no internet, no cell phones) he discovers that San Francisco is growing even faster than Texas. The brothers agree to go to San Francisco on the Lincoln Highway, a real American highway that runs from coast to coast.
Every good quest meets with obstacles and this quest is no exception. Two of Emmett’s incarcerated friends show up at the repossessed farm as the brothers prepare to leave. They have not been legally released from their sentences. Duchess and Woolly are two very different individuals. Woolly may have a slight mental disability, but he was born into a wealthy family. His father died and he is set to inherit a fairly large sum of money. Duchess is an opportunist. He never had a stable place to rest his head; his father was an itinerant actor who was often drunk. Duchess has a certain charisma though, and he has a ton of nerve. He doesn’t want to go to San Francisco. He wants to go to New York City to collect Woolly’s fortune. So he and a reluctant Woolly steal the car that Emmett paid for with his own apprentice pay and he leaves Emmett and Billy to find their own way to San Francisco. If a quest must have obstacles this twist is the first in a long line of them. It forces Emmett and Billy to follow Duchess and Woolly to New York City, not only to recover the car but to retrieve the envelop containing the $3,000 their father left for them in the well with the spare tire.
Take the Lincoln Highway on this wild quest and you will meet more heroes and villains than you have in many a day. And you will discover that ordinary people often contain the stuff of heroes, and villains. Amor Towles writes about the quirks of human nature in ways that allow us to focus on what is best about us and what is worst about us. It’s a long journey but it goes quickly and yet the heroes pace is slowed by many astonishing events.