Novella * “Richard Bachman” * Dystopian Sports * 1979
This is one of my favorite books, straight up. It is almost assuredly my most-read, since it can be easily breezed through in a couple of sittings. This is not to say that The Long Walk is profound work of literature or anything. It has many hallmarks of the young writer, there are some curious stylistic choices, and much of the dialogue is a little too smart for a bunch of teenage boys. However, when it comes to narrative pacing, this story is a fucking masterclass. That may seem like a small thing to be excellent at, but for a relatively simple narrative like this, pacing is crucial, and King nails it. More importantly for non-lit nerds is the spectrum of humanity presented here. The characters make the story, because when you get down to it, this is a book about a bunch of people going for a walk.
Well, there’s a little more to it than that. The story takes place in an alternate-reality, dystopian version of Maine (because it’s Stephen King, who has apparently only been to Maine and Colorado and maybe New York City once or twice). The United States is a military dictatorship presided over by a figure known only as The Major. There is not much in the way of background or world-building, which is totally fine considering what the work is trying to do. It seems that World War II lasted longer, with the conflict flowing over to North America. Eventually The Major took over, created The Squads, who keep order by disappearing people, and invented The Long Walk. This is made to be America’s new pastime, and is created as a prestigious event for those involved. Its organization is very simple.
The Long Walk consists of 100 teenage boys, who are randomly chosen from a pool of candidates that had previously passed both physical and mental testing. A route is mapped out from the Canadian border, which then winds its way through Maine towards New Hampshire. The 100 boys are to walk. They do not stop. Should they slow below four miles an hour, they are warned. Walkers get three warnings for walking below speed. If they manage to walk an hour without slowing below four miles an hour, they drop a warning. However, if they accrue three warnings and slow down again, they “get their ticket” and are out of the walk. By which I mean they are shot in the fucking head.
Ray Garraty is our entry point into this madness. He’s a Maine native, and is walking for reasons which are beyond his sixteen year old reckoning. Garraty is a mildly pleasant “everyboy,” who makes friends easily and at first doesn’t seem to think very deeply about much of anything. The entire point of the story is to follow Garraty’s psychological journey as he struggles to keep his body on the road. He makes friends with several other walkers, and much of the story is listening to a group of people physically falling apart try to keep their minds intact while bodies literally fall at their feet, reminders of the ever-present threat of slowing down too often. As it is slowly revealed, Garraty has some issues, as do others in his immediate circle. Of course, outside of the grim lethality of the event, most of these thoughts and conversations would be so much philosophical hot air. It’s the concrete reality of The Long Walk which grounds their psychological issues and raises the stakes.
This is a story that I know probably a little too well, which paradoxically makes it a little difficult to write about. I know every mile of this road, and have walked down it with Garraty, McVries, Stebbins, Baker, Olson, and the rest probably a couple dozen times. To be perfectly clear, this isn’t the kind of story that I reread to like, discover something new each time. Hardly. I’ve already mentioned the genius-level pacing of the story. The story begins as the Walk begins: slow, steady, serene. It’s set in the bucolic Maine forest and the most striking aspect of the event is how subdued everything is. There are no spectators outside of groups of small-town locals. We get detailed descriptions of the main characters through the viewpoint of Garraty, who gets to know these people at the same time the reader does. As the day progresses, King peppers in a multitude of brief and engaging details, anecdotes, and conversations with various people. The first day of the walk, which serves as an introduction to how everything will play out, takes up the most amount of book. Each subsequent day goes by faster, with fewer details and anecdotes. The smattering of individual spectators becomes The Crowd, and the Walk itself becomes blurry and dreamlike in places. As the boys become fewer and their minds begin falling apart along with their bodies, the Walk becomes almost surreal.
Then there is the ending, which I’ve never really liked. I suppose this is because I’ve never really understood what it is I’m reading. I’m all for ambiguous endings and all, but Garraty wins, sees… something (his father, the shadowy figure of Death, aliens?), and runs towards it. Okay. It has been well established to this point that winning the Long Walk is a fool’s game. One of the few winners ever mentioned by any of the boys died days afterward. Actually, the absence of even talking about prior winners is conspicuous. One would think that in a society where this event is praised and held aloft over the oppressed masses as a symbol of national pride and whatnot, the winners would be massive celebrities. Yet the boys never speak of them. There is talk of various records being broken (longest distance walked by a full compliment of walkers, and the like), but never fevered gossip about those who have won the Prize before. This, I suppose, rather fits into the whole walking-to-death narrative.
This is the idea that these 100 boys actually have no real intention of winning, and instead are committing a long-form state-sponsored suicide. There are exceptions to this: Scramm, for instance, obviously thinks he’s going to win. This is because he’s a good natured idiot, but still. Meanwhile, there are the dozens of expendables, those who we only really hear about when they die. As for the rest? Well, the story pretty much makes the point that these kids had half-formed ideas of glory mixed up with self-destructive impulses. What I would like to do is make a connection between this impulsive desire to die with the presumed harshness of life under the Major’s dictatorship. There’s just one small problem with that, which is there’s no real evidence that this is any kind of true dystopia.
As I mentioned before, one of the things that makes this story great is the ability of King to weave together small, entertaining anecdotes and details together to create a composite of life in this world. While this makes for an engaging and fascinating story, it doesn’t do much to promote a world under the jackboot of an evil dictator. This is not the world of The Running Man, which seems to be far more urbanized and bleak. Rather, the stories that the boys tell all seem to come from the small-town universe that King is most comfortable with. And that’s totally fine! Yet apart from the disappearing of Garraty’s dad, there is next to nothing in these stories about chafing under the regime. In the end, The Long Walk isn’t really about that. It’s about these characters, who despite being watched by millions, are in the end living only for themselves, even if it’s only in order to find some kind of common human understanding before death.