The Bottom Line: The cross-country quest at the heart of the novel defies genre, but will delight fans of unconventional crime thrillers.
In 1954, Emmett Watson is releases from a juvenile work farm after accidentally killing another boy. His father has died, and the family ranch is being repossessed. His young brother Billy urges him to take them west in search of the mother who abandoned them.
Emmett’s already precarious situation takes a turn when two of Emmett’s fellow inmates, Duchess and Wooly, show up announced. While neither escapee seems particularly malevolent – both are actually quite likable, if unpredictable – a sense of foreboding draws in when they agree to go cross country together in Emmett’s car. Soon, the pair end up stealing the car and taking it back east in search of Wooly’s fortune.
This leaves Emmett and Billy to hop trains for New York in search of them, leading to all kinds of potentially lethal situations. It also triggers a quest of sorts for America in the 1950s. Discovering the country through the eyes of these boys, with all its wonders and injustices, is enthralling.
Does this fortune really exist? What really happened to Billy and Emmett’s mother? What crime did Woolly commit to land him in the Kansas’ correctional system? And who, really, is Duchess?
Author Amor Towles tells the story from multiple points of view, delving into relatively deep character studies even with peripheral characters met during their harrowing journey. The result is a 600-page novel that requires patience despite its many twists, turns and surprises. But the payoff comes in satisfying character developments for both Emmett and Duchess in the book’s final chapters, insights that are both life-affirming and shocking.