Book #7. The Long Walk.
First published July, 1979 as Richard Bachman.
The Long Walk has been one of my favourite Stephen King releases ever since I first discovered it in the collection The Bachman Books. Without trying to get all meaningful and geeky, it spoke to me from the start. Firstly in trying to imagine a dystopian future where this kind of event could be allowed to take place, secondly in trying to imagine why anyone would allow themselves to be suckered into entering an event like this, and thirdly in the way the participants bind together initially in their own groups but eventually as one even as they try to outlast everyone to the end.
Like most great books, I find they tend to get better the more I read them. Finding some detail that has passed you by in previous readings, or remembering some detail that you had completely forgotten, are the best bits of re-reading favourite novels. The Long Walk, unlike its name, is only a medium sized read when it comes to Stephen King as well, and even so I have trouble putting down once I have picked it up to start again.
Once again it is the characters, and King’s wonderful ability to flesh them out beyond the simple and mundane, that makes this story so engaging. According to King, along with much of his Bachman material, this was written well before his first published works. And like Rage, this utilises the angst of teenager-dom excellently, and transfers it to the pages of his story so well. It is also not perfectly clear exactly what we have here until we are past the introductory stages. That we have 100 teenage boys who have been selected from a lottery for a walk comes across, but until the first ‘contestant’ is removed from the Long Walk, the consequences of the event are not perfectly clear. Once you realise that this is a race with no defined finish line, except that it finishes when only one boy remains, the whole dynamic of the story takes a different track completely, and you begin to feel the joy, the pain, the agony and the dog-gone tiredness of the competitors as you read.
Even in a Long Walk, King manages to weave the bizarre and the incomprehensible into his story. Scramm, who is married with his first child on its way. Mike and Joe, the Hopi Indian brothers (“It’s an abortion, that’s what it is!”). Harkness, who is going to write a book from a Long Walkers perspective when (if) he wins. Olsen, who starts out full of bravado and soon finds out the true meaning of what lies ahead. And Barkovitch, who proclaims he will walk on everyone’s grave, and becomes the pariah and villain all in one.
The main character triangle of Garraty, McVries and Stebbins is where the heart of the book lies. Garraty’s naivety and general openness cut against McVries constant travelling between gaiety and cheerfulness into dark and deepening thoughtfulness. One moment he taunts Garraty about his naivety of a situation, and not long after he taunts him angrily of his stupidity. More than any other character, McVries is the one who centres the different aspects of the Long Walk. In between his own light conversation with the Walkers, he vows to walk Barkovitch down because of his attitude, and he twice risks his own elimination to get Garrity back up and moving with him. But this doesn’t stop him from moodily disregarding Garraty at various intervals along the way, all to Garraty’s own bewilderment. Their friendship, if that is what you can call it, is what makes the meander along the roads of Maine most engrossing. King also uses Stebbins perfectly. He is the announcer for the Long Walk, the interval where we discover more about what is happening. It isn’t until the final phase of the story that Stebbins steps up and makes his play, at which time the true horror of the event is coming to its conclusion.
Even at the end, King has left us in some sort of limbo. It is ambiguously left open to the reader to imagine what happens once the concluding pages have been read. Perhaps the finality of it all is completely straight forward. Certainly Garraty appears to see what we would expect him to see. The dark figure ahead, beckoning. Does his Walk go on, and does it stretch for eternity? It appears the most likely scenario, but those who like happy endings could no doubt find a way to imagine that Garraty and Jan indeed end up together, and along with ray’s mother live happily ever after. But that really doesn’t happen a lot in Stephen King novels.
The Long Walk remains at the top of the tree for me in the Stephen King universe. It is always a pleasure to revisit, and always a tad disappointing to come to the end. If it really is the end…
Rating: The best of his Bachman releases. 5/5