My Year of King #5: The Long Walk (as Richard Bachman)

Monday, April 23, 2018

Dystopian fiction has been big over the last decade or so, especially for young adults. Series like Veronica Roth's Divergent series and Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy have harnessed the anxiety about the future of the human race that seems so prevalent these days and turned it into stories about brave young people defying oppressive authority and overcoming ecological and societal disaster.

When I first read The Long Walk in my teens, I had never heard the term dystopian, but it turns out that experience foreshadowed a future love for the genre. The Long Walk, published under King's pseudonym Richard Bachman, is the story of Raymond Garraty and 99 other teenage boys who are participating in the Long Walk, a competition to see which boy can walk the farthest without stopping. The reward for being the winner of the Long Walk is untold riches, but the consequence for coming in any place but first is death. The boys are followed by men with guns, ready to shoot and kill any walker who stops for longer than two minutes. The boys begin in Maine and walk until there is a winner. The Long Walk is the brainchild of The Major, the dictator of an America that is under totalitarian rule. Ray, being from Maine himself, gets a lot of support and encouragement from the spectators gathered along the walk's route, but will that be enough to give him the strength and stamina he needs to make it to the end.

What makes this short (for King) novel such an interesting read is the way he describes the physical and mental trials the walkers go through. As the Walk goes on through its second and third and fourth day, and the number of walkers gets smaller and smaller, King describes in pretty gruesome detail the effects that non-stop walking can have on the human body. This is not a novel for the squeamish. Each walker responds in their own way to the physical and mental pain and exhaustion, as well as to the increasingly likely event of their own death at the hands of one of the soldiers enforcing the rules of the Walk. A camaraderie forms between many of the walker, who find small ways to support each other, even though their friend's success would mean their own death. It is an interesting study in human nature, and how one author imagines we might behave under cruel and grueling circumstances.

My main criticism of this book, which I don't remember having when I read it the first time 30 years ago, is that though King drops some hints along the way about what has happened to make America into a totalitarian state willing to sacrifice its own teenagers in a bizarre form of ritualized physical competition, we never learn exactly what the purpose of the Long Walk is, who the Major is, how he came to power, or really anything about the state of the world outside of the Walk. From conversations between walkers, we know that it is illegal to speak out against the State, and the punishment is to be killed or "disappeared". We know that there is a militaristic security force that enforces these repressive rules. We know that something must be making these teenage boys desperate enough to be willing to participate in the Long Walk-none of them were conscripted. Each one made the choice to participate without coercion, as far as the reader can tell. I was left with TONS of questions. Readers often bemoan novels with too much exposition, but this one definitely could have used a bit more.

Some folks are also dissatisfied with the ending, I suspect, which leaves the finale of the Walk unresolved. But I am OK with it. I didn't need this story to have the ending tied up in a neat little bow. Unlike some plot-driven novels, I don't actually think the specific events of the novel were as important as the way that the characters reacted to them. All we know for certain is that there was a "winner"-but what that means, or what the long-term effects of being a walker might be on said winner, we will never know.

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