The Long Walk
Author: Richard Bachman (Stephen King)
Release Date: July 1979
I was nervous when I started “The Long Walk,” mainly because the first “Richard Bachman” book I read was “Rage” and that book was awful, dated, and one of the few books I’ve read that I understood being pulled from book shelves (the book was pulled because it allegedly inspired school shooters, I would have pulled it from shelves because of how bad it was). “The Long Walk” also is about a teenage boy’s struggle facing the death of those around him, so right away my reluctance felt justified. Maybe it was the low expectations but I ended up really enjoying this book for what it was.
The plot of “The Long Walk” is about a contest between 100 boys who begin in Northern Maine and walk south along the road. Each boy wears a monitor that verifies their speed, and any time they fall below 4mph, they get a warning. Each boy gets three warnings before he gets his ticket which means he is out of the race. If they can go a certain amount of time getting a new warning, they can earn back their warnings so they’re back at zero. There’s also a prize at the end of the contest of whatever they want, or anything they want, or everything they want. The contest is ran by an authoritarian military figure known as the Major.
**Stop reading here to avoid spoilers**
As you read the book, you pick up on a few things that are subtle and then some more that are shocking. (At least for me they were, I didn’t read the back of the book so I don’t know how much that spoils.) The world this book takes place in seems to be an alternate reality United States, where after World War II communism is the norm and the Long Walk is the an appealing contest to escape the drudgery, or for other people to take their minds off the bigger issues society is facing. This dystopian future though is not focused on, but only comes across in a few lines of dialogue here and there. I got most of my idea for the world this takes place in from the Walkers own views of their options in life (which was an interesting way to convey the setting by King).
The shocking part happened when the first Walker got his ticket, and soldiers came out and shot him as the other 99 boys kept walking. I figured the twist was something to this extent based on the main character’s mother’s reluctance for him to compete in this event, and some statements at the beginning about how most races have one boy who freezes and gets his ticket right then, but the actual execution by King is fantastic. The nameless soldiers become a force throughout the book, the same as large hills and rain storms that the Walkers acknowledge as part of their reality now.
All that said, the book was by no means perfect. The actual competition didn’t make a ton of sense, with everybody being dropped off by family members shortly before hand in whatever clothes they were wearing and starting out with no fanfare. The motivations for why each walker was in the race were also pretty slim, which the most detailed versions shared being fights with girlfriends or possible homosexuality being revealed to families (I commend King for trying to address homosexuality in this book, leaving it open ended as to the sexuality of two of the main characters, but it’s certainly a product of the era in how it associates shame more than any other emotion with those characters). The struggles with using the restroom and cramping all felt real enough, but the lack of sleep by the Walkers was the one fiction I couldn’t totally suspend my disbelief for.
Equally vague are the rewards people can expect for winning the Long Walk. The ending of the book was both fantastic and disappointing in that King completely succeeds in his goal of telling a lengthy, engaging story about 99 boys walking until they physically can’t continue, and stopping before giving the reader any hint of what happens next. The plot arc in this book is almost entirely internal character growth by Garraty, as he goes from feeling immortal to accepting death as a reality (about ten other characters have the same arc throughout as well). Perhaps it’s the sign of a great book, but selfishly when it was over I found myself asking “would an epilogue have killed you, Stephen?”