Where to Find It
In an ultraconservative America of the not-too-distant future when America has become a police state, the annual marathon is the ultimate sports competition. One hundred boys are selected each year to enter a grueling 450-mile marathon walk. The game is simple: maintain a steady walking pace of four miles per hour without stopping. Three warnings and your out—permanently. The winner will be awarded whatever he wants for the rest of his life; but a single misstep could be the last.
An old blue Ford pulled into the guarded parking lot that morning, looking like a small, tired dog after a hard run.
I’m not sure when I realized that this story wouldn’t have a happy ending, but I figured it out pretty quick. It was probably when I learned that the book could be interpreted as an allegory for the Vietnam War. I figured King wouldn’t have happy things to say about the war. Truly, this is a good lens to read this book through. It isn’t really trying to say something about the future and where we are going in America; it is trying to look at where we are (or were, in this case, but is it really so different) and how we sell war.
And that does seem to be the core idea in this book: how we sell war. It is young men who Walk. They apply, but they may be turned down. They are offered anything they want in the service of this good event. The Crowd watches them, cheers them on, disrespects them, lusts after them, but ultimately stands apart from them, offering judgment and waiting to see who lives and who dies. The Walkers love the Crowd; the Walkers loathe the Crowd.
Despite being a Bachman book, The Long Walk follows a basic Stephen King formula: fleshed-out characters in a horrific situation, watch and see how they handle things. Similar to the Vietnam metaphor, the novel could also be read meta-textually: the reader is the Crowd, the characters are the Walkers, the Major is the author. The reader, then, holds the lives of the characters in his or her hand, being propelled onward to see who lives and who dies, refusing to close the book and thus freeing the Walkers from their horrible ordeal. But we just have to know.
The grim joke, regardless of the metaphor, is that no one wins. The Major is a lying murderer, the Crowd is complicit in death because they love the entertainment, the Walkers all die, not by “getting their ticket punched,” but because the trauma of the event ultimately destroys the psyche of the winner. The Major promises anything you want, but the one thing you truly want you can’t have: The Walk cannot be undone. What the Walker goes through cannot be wiped away as if it never happened. Life does not just go on.
Again, I think The Long Walk is best read as a metaphor for war. I wanted to know more of the future America. I wanted to know more about why the Walk started. But these wants are left unaddressed, and indeed are unnecessary for the metaphor. We are meant to read our society into these pages, not some future society for escape. The Long Walk is not escape. It is not a happy ending, which is where it breaks some of the Stephen King formula. He drags you through horrors but usually has a few characters achieve some sort of happy resolution. Happiness is not offered here. In this vision of America, it is in short supply.
The Long Walk asks questions that are worth asking about war, soldiers, and society. But it is emotionally wrenching and very bleak. You should give that some consideration if that is not your thing.