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.
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?
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.
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!
Sunday 26th of February 2023
I've just finished The Lincoln Highway and found myself shedding a tear although I couldn't say why! I felt pleased that Emmett and Billy were on their way and on their own with the money but also felt sorrow for Duchess who did have some redeemable features, but alas in the end his greed killed him. Loved Billy and how the author used him as a guiding light throughout the novel. We all need one of those. Just about to start another Amor Towels. Excellent writer. Thanks
Thursday 23rd of February 2023
The character of Woolly will remain with me. His innocence, his love of people, love of belonging. "Wouldn't it be wonderful if everybody's life was like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle...no one's life an inconvenience to another's...fitting snuggly into its own, specially designed spot....enabling the whole intricate picture to become complete." This is how I perceive the author's intent for all his characters. I can't wait for his next book. His descriptions and perceptions are quite chewy, indeed.
Tuesday 7th of February 2023
The acts of violence against the Cowboy & Ackerly come from an 18 yr old w/anger - being left by his father at 10, then being sent to the work farm unjustly. The cowboy was thoroughly nasty and the violence to Ackerly was provoked - Ackerly treated those in his care callously. Duchess held grudges but recognized when he'd treated others badly (as when he found Townsend and got him to settle the score from the work camp). Duchess is 100% self-centered. He was so focused on getting into the safe that he forgot about Woolly. I don't understand why when Emmett understood that Woolly did indeed want to leave them the money that he couldn't have given Duchess his share and said - good luck. Of course he didn't want to continue a connection to Duchess but I'm not sure why (he seemed smart and to have sense) he couldn't have thought of a better way to leave him behind (safely). It would seem he would know the possible demise of Duchess - being left in a boat that could sink. Very disappointed by death of Duchess. Much worse than death of Woolly - which was so sad and a tragedy but not shocking. I don't understand why Towles wrote the death of Duchess at the end the way he did.
Friday 3rd of February 2023
I just finished reading it last night and was so wound up by the ending I had to Google what other people thought - including Amor Towles. On reflection now, I can see that Duchess is a charming psychopath (who can quote Shakespeare but can’t read) and his end is kind of fitting. There is the question of how come he got the gold pocket watch. The suggestion is that he got it off his father after he’d had a probably brutal encounter with him, but why would his father have ended up with the watch his son was done for stealing? I do love everything stopping still like in Marcelline’s stage act - that’s usual Amor Towle’s elegance.
Anyway, still bit troubled by the ending just as I was with A Gentleman - did occur to me would make great ending for the film though…
Friday 27th of January 2023
I just finished the audiobook today. The actors who lend their voices to the narrative are amazing. Emmets voice is quiet and mostly principled. Billy's voice is exuberant! Wooleys voice is muffled, though there is a sweetness to him that comes through. Sally sounds a bit whiny though she is devoted to Billy. And Duchess sounds like a showman.
As for the ending there are many layers to the final part of the book. I found there to be some inconsistencies in the narrative - my opinion is that much of the book seems like it have taken place in the late 1950s, when travel investments (e.g., Interstate Road System) would have enabled a 20 hour drive from Nebraska to New York City. In 1954 much of that travel would have been on two lane roads until reaching Pennsylvania and New Jersey. That would have taken another day for sure.
I'm not 100% sure of Duchess' fate. I think he drifts in and out of consciousness while on the boat and I surmise that only about ten bills are described as floating/flying away, leaving $49500 which is a lot of money in 1954...why would he do anything to jeopardize losing that? Duchess is a smart guy so I think he would have waited for the wind to push him back to the other side of the lake. I also do think he could read a little bit. How else would he know where to drive to in New York City? He would have had to know how to read signs.
I did not appreciate the fate of Wooley. He seems like such a giving person. I did not understand the role of Sally. Ironically I can see the NYC police finding her registration for her truck and tracking her down in Morgen to pay for the tickets and impounding fees she would have likely incurred. I can't understand why would Billy and Emmets mom leave the family
In the end...time is a precious resource. So whether its a train schedule or a grandfather clock or Marcelines/Billy's/Wooley's watches time marches on. And in this book the last day in the book is the first day of summer! Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts...