A popular Christian summer camp uses the motto “everlasting adventure.” What a grand promise for teenagers and young people. In Christ, you will never run out of new beauties and glories to explore. You will never be bored. You will taste eternal and abundant life—everlasting adventure.
Amor Towles’s (Rules of Civility, A Gentleman in Moscow) new novel, The Lincoln Highway—its own sort of everlasting adventure—taps into the innate sense of exploration and wonder we have as human beings. In doing so, Towles points readers to the grand adventure we were all created for.
The Lincoln Highway: A Novel
In June, 1954, eighteen-year-old Emmett Watson is driven home to Nebraska by the warden of the juvenile work farm where he has just served fifteen months for involuntary manslaughter. His mother long gone, his father recently deceased, and the family farm foreclosed upon by the bank, Emmett’s intention is to pick up his eight-year-old brother, Billy, and head to California where they can start their lives anew. But when the warden drives away, Emmett discovers that two friends from the work farm have hidden themselves in the trunk of the warden’s car. Together, they have hatched an altogether different plan for Emmett’s future, one that will take them all on a fateful journey in the opposite direction—to the City of New York.
Spanning just ten days and told from multiple points of view, Towles’s third novel will satisfy fans of his multi-layered literary styling while providing them an array of new and richly imagined settings, characters, and themes.
Beginning the Adventure
The story begins as Emmett Watson, an 18-year-old from a small town in Nebraska, returns from a juvenile work camp. It’s June 12, 1954, and he’s just been released early because his father passed away and he needs to care for his 8-year-old brother, Billy. Their mother had left Nebraska for California after Billy was born, and due to their father’s death and the circumstances surrounding Emmett’s stint in Salina, the brothers agree it’s time to pack up and start a new life elsewhere.
Towles points readers to the grand adventure we were all created for.
Emmett intends to go to Texas, but Billy reveals a discovery he made in Emmett’s absence: after leaving Nebraska, their mother had sent eight postcards from eight different spots on the Lincoln Highway—the U.S.’s first cross-country highway. She ended in San Francisco. The brothers would drive there.
Little did they know, two of Emmett’s friends from Salina had snuck in the trunk of the warden who drove Emmett home. Duchess and Wooly sidetracked the road trip—the first of many such distractions. Instead of driving west to San Francisco, they would drive to the Adirondacks to unearth a buried treasure: a $150,000 trust left to Wooly.
The Lincoln Highway is a true adventure novel, as the four boys traverse the country, coming upon one surprising obstacle after the next, and meeting a full cast of Mark Twainish characters like Pastor John, the derelict preacher who accosts young Billy in a freight car, and Ulysses, the physically imposing, African American, World War II–veteran who has been separated from his family and hopes to be reunited with them after 10 years.
The novel ends on June 21, 1954—the precise date that A Gentleman in Moscow ended. That book spanned 32 years in one location, focusing on one main character; this book spans the eastern half of the United States, focusing on four main characters, in only 10 days. And while this high-stakes, spellbinding, coming-of-age adventure comes to a rapid conclusion, you realize by the end that Towles is inviting you to something more. Billy begins to write his own story and the implication is that we can do the same.
But even as readers will be spellbound, they will be left longing. The great adventure novels end with resolution; The Lincoln Highway ends with tragedy, and the beginning of yet another adventure. Ultimately, adventure—as penned by Towles—is unending, random, and forsaken. Which makes for a good novel, but a disappointing story.
Unending, Random, Forsaken Adventure
The number eight has multiple appearances in The Lincoln Highway. The symbol for infinity turned vertical (8) is the age of Billy Watson. It’s the number of years since Emmett and Billy’s mother left, and the number of postcards she sent on her way to San Francisco. And not only does the novel feel like an unending figure eight at times—with the various characters and their adventures branching off from one another and looping back together repeatedly—the adventures of the characters (save two) are themselves unending in this book. Most stories are left without resolution. The only two conclusions are tragic, and even those, in their own way, don’t quite feel like conclusions.
A companion to the novel’s lack of closure is its randomness. The boys who met at the work camp in Salina were each only there, to some extent, because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Billy is only saved from Pastor John because Ulysses is in the right place at the right time. And the novel’s tragic ending is an accident that could have gone a thousand different ways. A truly post-modern novel, there is no overarching narrative in The Lincoln Highway, only the narratives individuals write for themselves as they pursue their own adventures and bump into fellow travelers along the way.
The novel carries a sense of God-forsakenness. Each character writes his or her own adventure because no one else is writing it for them. In a conversation between Billy and Ulysses—perhaps the two most admirable characters in the novel—we hear about the moment Ulysses took charge of his own adventure. It was the moment he realized he had been forsaken by his Maker. He tells Billy:
If I learned anything in the war, it’s that the point of utter abandonment—the moment at which you realize no one will be coming to your aid, not even your Maker—is the very moment in which you may discover the strength required to carry on. (330)
Billy takes Ulysses’s words to heart, and at key moments in the novel’s remaining pages saves the day by remembering his God-forsakenness and asserting his own agency.
There is much that is true, good, and beautiful about The Lincoln Highway. Readers will be inspired by the childlike faith of Billy, the kindness of Wooly, and the spiritual depth and wisdom of Sister Agnes. And readers may indeed be inspired to get on with their own adventure, to turn aside from the passiveness and withdrawal so common in our world. At the very least, readers will be compelled by Towles’s uncommon ability to weave together a fascinating tale.
Readers may indeed be inspired to get on with their own adventure, to turn aside from the passiveness and withdrawal so common in our world.
But readers should also note that adventure as it is experienced in this novel—unending, random, and forsaken—is finally unsatisfying and unfulfilling. It might give us a rush for a few days, but it can’t sustain a sense of meaning or purpose. What we need is an adventure with resolution, an adventure that is not random, but according to plan, and an adventure that is not God-forsaken, but God-directed and God-visited. The Christian has just such an adventure.
Indeed, we have been given a task far more rewarding than traveling from one side of the country to the other to collect a trust fund. We’ve been sent out into the world with an eternal trust to invest in all the nations. And we know that one day, Christ will return, and this adventure will be complete. No longer will the detours and distractions and devastating losses along the way frustrate our adventure; we will cross a finish line, and we will finally rest.
As we go along our adventure, we know the apparent chaos we experience is not random. We’re never truly “on the ugly side of chance,” as the kind warden remarked about Emmett. No, God has not left our adventure up to chance. He determined its conclusion from before the foundations of the earth, and every apparent detour we face is ordained by him for the accomplishment of his purposes—for his glory and our good.