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The Lincoln Highway: Let’s Talk About That Ending! (Spoilers)

The Lincoln Highway: Let’s Talk About That Ending! (Spoilers)

This is a spoiler-filled discussion about the ending to The Lincoln Highway. If you haven’t read the novel yet, wait to visit this post until after you finished it.

Welcome to the discussion about The Lincoln Highway! If you’re new to Book Club Chat, I write spoiler-free reviews and spoiler-filled book club questions for each novel I read. But lately, I’ve noticed some books deserve a third article—one dedicated to shocking endings. So please feel free to comment with your thoughts at the end of the article.

The Lincoln Highway is a coming-of-age tale about the transition from teenager to adulthood. Each of the main characters are at a crossroads of sorts and in a way, the Lincoln Highway serves as a getaway from their current, somewhat bleak situation.

Particularly, Emmett and Billy. This is their chance to leave behind Nebraska and its bad memories and try out California. While Billy hopes they can find their mother in San Fransisco (even though she abandoned the family), Emmett believes they can get a fresh start with fixing and then selling houses (the original house flippers).

But Duchess made a mess of everything. Once he steals Emmett’s car and heads up to New York, it completely delays Emmett’s and Billy’s plans.

From there, we follow Emmett and Billy’s journey to regain the car and they meet an interesting cast of characters along the way.

The Ending

Remember, this is spoilers, spoilers, spoilers from here on out! So don’t read this unless you’ve finished the book. Seriously!

Up until about the last 60 pages or so, the story is fairly straightforward coming-of-age tale with vivid imagery of the time period and lots of pondering about the past and what’s next. So the shift in tone during the climax to the ending was pretty shocking.

Emmett finds Woolly dead in his bed from a suicide. He’s distraught but when he sees Duchess, all Duchess cares about his trying to get Woolly’s inheritance that is locked away. This horrifies Emmett and he’s determined for Duchess to finally go to the police to own up to his crimes and that’s when the two get into a fight. Eventually, Emmett knocks out Duchess.

It turns out Woolly did leave each of the friends his money. So the brothers take their share of the money and plan to finally go to California.

But Emmett is concerned that Duchess will try and find them. So he decides to put an unconscious Duchess on a boat with his own share of the money. The boat contains a hole and Emmett stacks stones in order to stop the boat from flooding. However, once Duchess is awake and the money begins to blow away, Duchess shifts the boat to try and get it—causing it to sink and since Duchess can’t swim, he drowns.

We apparently see a flash before Duchess dies that shows the brothers in California, Woolly alive, Sally with a child and Sister Sarah. Clearly this doesn’t represent the future since Woolly is alive but maybe that flash was simply Duchess’ wishes. I’m not sure—what do you think about that scene?

Key Events

While the ending is shocking, there are hints of something more sinister going on earlier in the novel—Duchess’ random act of violence against the taunting cowboy in Morgen and also to Ackerly, the former warren of the juvenile camp. Duchess tries to justify both but it’s undeniable that those were unprovoked actions and the fact he doesn’t see that is pretty disturbing in itself.

And with Emmett, while he did not kill the bully on purpose back in Morgen, it does sound like he has anger issues and only Billy can get him to calm down. Although, who wouldn’t be absolutely furious with Duchess and his behavior, right?

But let’s talk over several key events. First, was this Woolly’s plan all along—to commit suicide and leave his friends his inheritance? I think so. This is why his interactions with his sister seemed to have a farewell component to it. Very sad and tragic.

I have seen people wonder if Duchess had a hand in Woolly’s death—such as ensuring Woolly would get his sister’s medicine bottle (which I don’t think we ever got the name of). So, maybe he didn’t actually kill Woolly but he also didn’t help to prevent the overdose. I think it’s left vague on purpose.

The second event I want to discuss is the fact that Duchess makes it seem like this trip is an effort to get revenge at his father for framing him and sending him to the work camp. But he never does come into contact with his father—although it seems like he does try. I was disappointed they never had an interaction and that really didn’t go anywhere.

Reading the story from Duchess’ first-person perspective caused the reader to try to sympathize with him but soon it became apparent that not only was he a liar but he’s also a dangerous person. While Duchess probably thought of himself as a hero, he was the villain, in the end. I don’t feel he was misunderstood—I believe his actions were loud and clear.

Emmett’s Motivations

And so let’s talk about the big twist—Emmett leaving Duchess in the boat. I’ve reread it a couple times and I don’t believe Emmett purposely killed Duchess. I know some feel that way but I just don’t think that was the author’s intention. I feel Emmett was truly concerned that Duchess would find him and Billy and continue to cause havoc so he had to delay Duchess.

But at the same time, I feel that Emmett didn’t care what happened to Duchess. He knows that Duchess can’t swim and he did just enough to provide some safety but it was up to Duchess to ensure that he could get back to shore. Potentially, Emmett laid the groundwork for Duchess to have to choose between the money or survival. This line Emmett thinks before driving away is significant:

“Having come fifteen hundred miles in the wrong direction, on the verge of traveling three thousand more, Emmett believed that the power within him was new in nature, that no one but he could know what he was capable of, and he only has just begun to know it himself.”

How I take this is after Emmett murdered that bully, he really worked to contain his anger but Duchess’ behavior left him no choice. If Emmett didn’t stop Duchess, Emmett believes that Duchess would again get in the way of their plans. So Emmett will not get pushed around any longer and is willing to do whatever it takes to get him and Billy to safety. So again, while I don’t think Emmett set out to murder Duchess, I also believe he didn’t care what happened to him—he just didn’t want to deal with his toxic behavior any longer.

Tell Me Your Thoughts

This is how I interpreted The Lincoln Highway ending. Agree, disagree and/or have other ideas completely? Be sure to tell me your thoughts below!

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Jeffrey Goldman

Tuesday 24th of May 2022

The death of Duchess strikes me as a very Faustian Bargain. He must make a choice between saving his life or saving the money. He chooses the money. I thought he should have tried to remove the rocks and then wait for the boat to drift to the shore.

Duchess’s behavior throughout the book is loathsome. Despite Sister Sarah imploring Emmett to be kind to Duchess, the narrative demands his death. The only vaguely redeeming thing Duchess does in the book is to whack the bully who instigated the fight. Conversely, Billy never does a bad act. So it was well foreshadowed that Duchess will die. As the reader, you are resigned to his death being a manifestation of his impulsivity. Watching it unfold slowly on the boat puts the reader at conflict. All together an enjoyable read, although greater character development would have made the book more intriguing.

Lorraine

Sunday 22nd of May 2022

Maybe I was hoping for a fairy tale ending including: Emmet and Billy spotting their mom at the Fourth of July celebration in San Francisco and Ulysses re-uniting with his wife and son. Just my fantasies.

Ezra

Saturday 21st of May 2022

I agree that Emmett had no intention of killing Duchess and his ‘new found power’ was differentiating violent anger from calculated survival (counting to ten then whacking Duchess with the butt of a rifle.)

Thus the placing of Duchess in the boat was a calculated risk that cemented Emmett and Billy’s safe head start on the journey. But there’s lovely literary tension because Duchess could track them down for the rest of the money, thinking himself one of the now three musketeers, but with the sociopathic intentions he inherited from his father.

And as to that, I do not think he interacted with his father because each scene was told twice or three times, and he still had the batt in the trunk when he and Wholly arrived at the lake house. (It would have been discarded after a crime and this trunk scene was intentional by the author.) It’s an important detail to note at the end, when interpreting the symbolism of the hero’s journey.

Pastor John was not Duchess’ father, but he represents one of two men in the story; men with values and honor, (Ulysses, Emmet, Emmet’s father, Prof Abernathy, the new Warden) who fight or balance the men in the world who just can’t access a sense of compassion or right and wrong (Duchess’ father, Pastor John, perhaps “Dennis”, and ultimately Duchess himself.)

The fact that Duchess never settles or balances out the score with his father is paramount- it is ultimately the journey all men have to take- doing what is right, forgiving those men who fail us, and discovering internal power by looking outside of ourselves (a promise of non violence to Billy) to calculate the fine line of the survival, and turning the other cheek to the Ackerly’s (mean warden,) cruel fathers, and bullies in our lives.

Ulysses, having already understood this calculated survival, “I ride alone on the train” ultimately throws Pastor John unconscious in the river, perhaps killing him but not murdering him, just like Emmet placed a wounded Duchess in the water. But Ulysses’ symbolism is balanced by him welcoming a companion with him on his hero’s journey, a new pastor of sorts in Prof Abernathe.

What leaves me confused/worried is with Duchess drowned, won’t Emmett be on a wanted list in the manslaughter deaths of his two fiends when authorities investigate the lake house or are we to believe the discovery of Duchess’ unexplained death will end the authority’s hunt for the perpetrator of the violent crimes?

Incidentally… did we notice that Wallace from Rules of Civility, was the same Uncle Wallace in Lincoln Highway!?! Amor Towels may write a sequel of sorts, giving us a clue as to the fates of some distant character in a previous book.

May we find a glimpse of a possible future for the remaining characters in both amazing novels!!

Ezra

Saturday 21st of May 2022

@Ezra,

…Oh and to get back to the importance of the unused Louisville Slugger in the trunk… all men who fail to forgive the men who wound them and thus carry those wounds forward to others will forever carry the violent potential (and spiritual wealth) of a batt in their proverbial trunks.

Those who grow and forgive and seek to honor and protect the next generation unconditionally (as all the main women characters in The Lincoln Highway naturally do, literally from the nuns to the sex workers) will carry in their proverbial trunks spiritual wealth (a bag of cash) and the remaining work to be done (to throw away the bag(gage) of trash from our past.)

An incredible Hero’s Journey… that ended, ironically, in the middle of the story… at the beginning of their intended journey.

Cynthia

Friday 20th of May 2022

I think Duchess had sociopathic tendencies, and that Woolly was depressed, felt lesser than, guilty about the horses, misunderstood, and hypersensitive. Was not surprised about his suicide. Emmet was trying hard to keep it together but Duchess was a threat to his whole future. I did not think he was trying to kill Duchess and that he and Billy will eventually find out and it will haunt him always and change his relationship with Billy. Billy is the character that I would most want to see in the future. He was so exceptionally bright , a bit OCD, curious, fearless, moral, and insightful . Sally became 50’s liberated woman, and Sarah will live the life of dutiful wife mother with profound sadness. She did not seem to fit in to the life of the wealthy society woman and seemed happier when she was with Woolly than when she was with her husband. I really enjoyed this book and found the characters very rich.

Aileen

Wednesday 18th of May 2022

This book pays homage to classic characters- Duchess reminds me of one of Shakespeare’s greatest villains: Iago from Othello. Iago was a dangerous sociopath, who everyone within the play trusted/saw as a good person. The antagonist in which only the audience knew their true character. In the last fantasy Duchess has, his thoughts are the same as Iago. It confirms for the audience that on some level Duchess was aware of his own darker self.

As for Emmett’s intentions… I think he specifically did not kill him, but did intentionally wound him. At the end of Othello, the hero stabs Iago (without fatally killing him) but then commits suicide for his own part in Iago’s schemes. Emmett would have to reckon for Duchess’ murder, so he does not choose a path that costs him his own life (in jail time or guilt). Emmett chooses his future, thereby breaking away from his own likeness -hero Achilles (who even Billy described as having acted in anger because of his central character flaw).

Ultimately, just as Iago was left with the fallout of his duplicity and manipulations -Duchess was left with his.