King Reads King Book 8: The Long Walk

Signet cover for The Long Walk

Where to Find It

Bookfinder.com

Blurb

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.

First Line

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.

Verdict

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.

The Long Walk as Allegory

Line of soldiers walking.
(Source: AP)

“It was nine o’clock. they had been on the road twelve hours. It didn’t mean anything. The only thing that mattered was the cool breeze blowing over the top of the hill. And the sound of a bird. And the feel of his damp shirt against his skin. And the memories in his head. those things mattered, and Garraty clung to them with desperate awareness. They were his things and he still had them.”

Frank Darabont has a fascinating interpretation of The Long Walk.

According to a 2007 interview with the writer/director whose best-known Stephen King adaptation is The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Long Walk is a war allegory:

“To me, it’s an existential metaphor for our mindless obsession with war — kids being sent off to die for no reason other than ‘just because.’ I don’t think it’s a coincidence that King wrote it in the shadow of Vietnam, though we’ve never really discussed that part of it, that’s just my interpretation.”

I’m inclined to agree with his interpretation. The Long Walk involves young men being promised the glory of The Prize, essentially a better life and all their dreams come true, if they survive The Walk. Very few of the boys have any real indication of what they have agreed to do, and the horrors of The Walk become apparent as time drags on. The conversations the boys have are similar to what you would see in war movies as soldiers contemplate the meaning of war, life, and love. All the while, the Major urges them on and the spectators cheer for them, protected by their barrier of comfort. Many spectators wave flags or are dressed in patriotic colors. One farming couple is directly compared to the “American Gothic” painting. As he starts out, Garraty passionately kisses a female spectator (taking a warning for doing so), which conjured images of the V-J Day in Times Square photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, the photograph of the sailor kissing a nurse.

But in the midst of The Walk, strength isn’t found in The Prize; strength is found in life and memories and camaraderie. Unfortunately, since only one person can win The Prize, even camaraderie is suspect. You don’t want to get too close to your fellow Walkers if they are soon going to die.

The Long Walk, Introduction

Cover for The Long Walk

With The Long Walk I return to the writings of Richard Bachman, which at this point in Stephen King’s career means I am reading works written prior to Carrie. Basically, these are pre-Stephen-King novels. You know, Stephen King before he was STEPHEN KING.

The Long Walk was first published in paperback in 1979. According to his afterward in Full Dark, No Stars, The Long Walk was the first novel he wrote. It is a dystopian science fiction novel, although from where I am four chapters in the science fiction elements are minimal. The dystopian aspects are highlighted by the central concept, which is an endurance test undertaken each year by 100 teenage boys. This test, called The Long Walk, is pretty much what it says on the tin—a walk to see who is the last boy standing. Or walking, in this case. They have to maintain a four-mile-per-hour pace. Three strikes and they “get their ticket,” a King-esque euphemism for execution. The entire event is a national past-time. People take pride in rooting for boys from their state. Not every leg of the Walk is broadcast, but parts are. Presumably, places where boys are likely to get their ticket are less likely to have spectators.

Even though it was written much later, think of this as The Hunger Games but with walking.

The protagonist, Raymond Garraty (#47). I don’t know why he is Walking. I get the impression that Walking is a type of choice. Most of the first four chapters consist of build-up, so apart from being introduced to the basic concept and a few additional characters, I don’t have much more to report on the plot or world building so far.

The book is short by King standards: under 400 pages. In truth, I’m wondering how he maintains the pace for what may be a limited time scale for the novel. I expect at some point the boys may turn on each other, unless there are specific rules against this. Even if it is against the rules, I’m sure the pressure will build.