I had huge love for his last book, A Gentleman in Moscow, and was not disappointed by this one. AGiM has, I believe, been optioned by Kenneth Branagh; this on the other hand would make a good Coen Brothers movie. Nebraska, 1953: 18-year-old Emmett is released from the equivalent of American Borstal, after serving a sentence for involuntary manslaughter. His sole family is his 8-year-old brother Billy, who was cared for by neighbours. Now Emmett wants to take Billy down to Texas where he has plans for making good of the rest of their lives. Billy however wants to go to California to find their long-lost mother. But then the matter is inadvertently settled when two more inmates of the same institution turn up, having stowed away in the trunk of the warden’s car. Duchess is the son of a 2-bit part-time actor and conman; Woolly is the scion of a WASP family from New York. Duchess steals Emmett’s car and heads with Woolly to New York, to retrieve the portion of Woolly’s inheritance which he happens to know is stored in cash in a safe in the family’s mansion in the wilds of New York. He intends to return the car a few days later, but Emmett doesn’t know that, and Duchess doesn’t know that all of Emmett’s cash – a few thousand dollars scraped together by his late father – is in an envelope in the trunk, so really Emmett and Billy have no choice but to follow him.
And thus begins a masterful non-linear tragicomedy of best laid plans going awry, due to tunnel vision and lack of communication and sheer fate. Everything does intertwine properly, eventually. Duchess is like a path-not-taken Emmett: equally strong willed and principled, but while Emmett’s moral compass is mostly aligned with the consensus, Duchess’s has a very strong degree of magnetic variation. And each boy is in charge of a complete innocent, though only Emmett should be. But the other two boys also have their own agency in the plot. Billy sees the world in sheer black and white, with very little grey, and Woolly has a mind that Duchess describes as tuned to a different frequency: in modern terms he probably has ADHD. The four boys are two mirror-pairs. We get deeply multilayered characters that you immediately start to like, with a story told in non-linear form and sometimes making me care so much that I (just a couple of times) flicked ahead when they got into difficulty to check that they were going to get through this: if this turned out to be a tragedy, I wanted to know now.