“The Lincoln Highway” is the story of a cast of characters who find themselves out on the road with intertwined stories. The story begins with 18 year old Emmett Watson. Emmett has just been released early from Salina, a workhouse for young men, where he had been sentenced to 18 months for killing Jimmy Snyder. He is released early and the warden drives him to his home in Nebraska, where he finds his neighbor, Mr. Ransom and the local banker waiting on him. The banker is there to foreclose on his home and Mr. Ransom is there, apparently, for moral support. Emmett’s father was a hard luck farmer who died while Emmett was at Salina. Emmett’s 8 year old brother, Billy, had been staying with the Ransom family. After Emmett ends business with the banker, Sally Ransom brings Billy home.
Billy is a very unusual youngster. When Emmett tells him they must leave Nebraska and head to Texas, Billy insists that they must go to California. Billy has determined that their mother, who left eight years earlier, is in San Francisco. He has reached this conclusion on the basis of a series of postcards she sent immediately after she left. The postcards reflect her travel down the Lincoln Highway until she reached San Francisco.
Billy carries a US army backpack where he holds everything of importance, including a valuable collection of silver dollars and his beloved book, Professor Abacus Abernathe’s Compendium of Heroes, Adventurers, and Other Intrepid Travelers. Emmett has a blue Studebaker which they will drive to leave Nebraska. Emmett looks in the trunk and sees that his father had hidden an envelope containing about one hundred fifty twenty dollar bills. Enough for them to start over.
As Billy and Emmett are getting reacquainted, Emmett looks up to find Duchess and Woolly standing in the door. The two had been his friends at Salina and had escaped in the trunk of the warden’s car. Emmett is happy to see them but not too happy that they have escaped before the end of their sentences. He tells them they need to go back but the two have other ideas. Woolly comes from a very wealthy background and they have decided they are going to travel to the family vacation home in the Adirondacks and take $150,000 out of the safe there. They intend the money to be split among the three of them. Emmett wants no part of this and tells them he is going to drive them to the greyhound station in Omaha.
On the drive to Omaha, the group takes a number of diversions, the first of which is to go onto the Lincoln Highway. Then Duchess asks that they stop in Lewis, Nebraska at an orphanage where he had lived (a previously unknown aspect of his life). Duchess disappears into the building and when he does not reappear after a period of time Emmett goes looking for him. When Emmett returns outside the Studebaker (and the money), Woolly and Duchess are gone. Billy is waiting for Emmett.
Woolly and Duchess have taken the car to Manhattan. Emmett decides that he and Billy have no choice but to follow them. Since they now have no money, they ride on a freighter train. Thus ensues a great adventure involving corrupt pastors, friendly hobos, the big role of Billy’s book, kind hearted prostitutes, Woolly’s amazing sister, Sally Ransom and Woolly’s wealth.
I know I should have liked this book. I liked the author’s previous two books, but this one not so much. The characters were unrealistic and contrived, the women seemed to be a peripheral male dominated afterthought and the ending was simply implausible and inconsistent with the prior 500 plus page buildup. The author actually summed up the way I felt about this book in a quote from one of the few women he thought to toss in: “From a man’s point of view, the one thing that’s needful is that you sit at his feet and listen to what he has to say, no matter how long it takes for him to say it, or how often he’s said it before.” That, in my opinion, sums up The Lincoln Highway. You can reserve this book at the Cuyahoga County Public Library by clicking here.