Sunday, May 20, 2012

Stephen King: The Long Walk (as Richard Bachman) (1979)

Any game looks straight if everyone is being cheated at once.

Every year on May 1, one hundred teenaged boys compete in the Long Walk, an endurance contest that begins at the Maine/Canada border and continues for hundreds of miles south, along rural routes through small towns, and onto Interstate 95.

There are no stops or rest periods. The boys walk 24 hours a day until there is only one walker remaining. There is extensive television coverage, tens of thousands of people line the walk route day and night, and $2 billion is wagered on the outcome. The winner receives anything he wants for the rest of his life.

Ray Garraty, 16, is from Pownal, Maine, and has volunteered for the Walk over the strenuous objections of both his mother and his girlfriend, Janice. Why they would object so strongly is because of what happens to the 99 boys who do not win. The walkers are monitored and must maintain a pace of four miles per hour. If they fall below that pace for 30 seconds, they are warned. Each walker is allowed three warnings; on a fourth violation, he "gets a ticket" - the slang phrase for being shot in the head by the armed soldiers who monitor the boys' speed and ride alongside them in military half-tracks. Boys can also be "ticketed" for leaving the road, which usually means trying to escape into the woods or the crowds. (If a boy walks on pace for an hour, one warning is subtracted from his total.)


Stephen King wrote the first draft of The Long Walk in 1966-67, when he was a freshman at the University of Maine at Orono. Burt Hatlen, his English professor, was one of the first people to read the novel:
I was very impressed ... it was clear he was a natural writer. ... I thought The Long Walk was a spectacular performance. ... [I responded to] the intensity of the narrative pace. Here was somebody who really knew how to tell a story, that grabbed you and kept you going. ... I don't know that that's something that can be taught, and he clearly had it.
King, from the original introduction to The Bachman Books (1985):
I wrote five novels before Carrie. Two of them were bad, one was indifferent, and I thought two of them were pretty good. The two good ones were Getting It On (which became Rage when it was finally published) and The Long Walk. ... I submitted Walk to the Bennett Cerf/Random House first-novel competition in the fall of 1967 and it was promptly rejected with a form note ... no comment of any kind. Hurt and depressed, sure that the book must really be terrible, I stuck it into the fabled TRUNK, which all novelists, both published and aspiring, carry around. I never submitted it again until Elaine Geiger at New American Library asked if [Richard Bachman] was going to follow up Rage. The Long Walk went in the TRUNK, but as Bob Dylan says in "Tangled Up in Blue," it never escaped my mind.
Frank Darabont, a film director, screenwriter, and producer who brought The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile, and The Mist to the big screen, has wanted to make a film of The Long Walk for many years.
It's a very intense ensemble character piece, another one of those "people in a contained pressure-cooker situation" stories that Steve does so well and seems to specialize in. 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. It's a remarkable and pointed piece of fiction, especially considering he was basically a kid when he wrote it.

The more I thought about it, the more I see the influence of Vietnam and King's opinion of it as pointless and a waste of lives, and the fear of death and confusion among the soldiers who were sent to fight for no clear or logical reason.
The names of the 100 walkers are drawn out of a large drum on national television like draft numbers. Death is all around the boys as they walk – cheered by uncomprehending crowds – with the fear of a bullet in the head an ever present concern. The city-raised boys hear strange noises in the Maine woods at night and are terrified of what is moving around out there. There is a desire to stay alive at all costs, but there is also a common bond among the walkers. The boys are forced to adjust their thinking, to be glad they are alive now and not worry about later today or tomorrow. The searching questions – Why did we do it? What were we thinking when we signed up? – and the incomplete answers – I don't think there was any good reason – strike a chord, as well.


The Long Walk is set in an alternate United States, a country under the totalitarian or military rule of the Major, who oversees the Walk. There are small hints of this throughout the book, a reference to "the Change", the existence of 51 states or regions, Hank Aaron's 739 career home runs, the date of April 31, and "the German air-blitz of the American East Coast during the last days of World War II". Citizens who voice dissent or speak against the government – like Garraty’s father, who referred to the Major as "the rarest and most dangerous monster any nation can produce, a society-supported sociopath" – are disappeared or "squadded", taken away by one of the roaming military squads, and never seen again.

Once the race starts, the narrative is either the boys talking or the Garraty's observations and thoughts. The boys walk through the heat of midday, afternoon rain storms, and the still loneliness of night. Walkers can request a canteen of water at any time and every morning at 9 AM they are given "tubes of high-energy concentrate pastes".

King does a masterful job of describing the first night, which begins roughly 10-11 hours into the walk, after several boys have been killed, and any initial bravado has long since disappeared.
Talk had faded with the daylight. The silence that set in was oppressive. . . . [F]or the first time it seemed perfectly real and totally unnatural . . . and [Garraty] wondered what in the hell he was doing and how he ever could have gotten involved. He could not even kid himself that everything had not been up front, because it had been. And he hadn't even done it alone. There were currently ninety-five others fools in this parade. . . . He realized that someone up ahead was sobbing softly. He had not heard the sound begin, and no one had called his attention to it; it was as if it had been there all along.
The walkers "resign themselves to a long, barely understood bitterness ahead . . . little clots of society, dissolved into 3s, 2s, solitary islands". The hours drag as each of the boys moves through the groundfog, having retreated into "his own private world of pain and effort".
The darkness seemed to isolate each of them, and Garraty felt a shaft of intense loneliness. ... Garraty turned up his collar and listened to the sound of his feet pounding the pavement. There was a trick to that, a subtle mental adjustment, like having better night vision the longer you were in the dark. This morning the sound of his feet had been lost to him. They had been lost in the tramp of ninety-nine other pairs, not to mention the rumble of the halftrack. But now he heard them easily. His own particular stride and the way his left foot scraped the pavement every now and then. It seemed to him that the sound of his footfalls had become as loud to his ears as the sound of his own heartbeat. Vital, life and death sound. ...

By four o'clock there was a brightening band on the horizon ... [Garraty] stared back at the long tunnel of the night in actual horror, and wondered how he ever could have gotten through it. ...

He watched the sky and the land lightened by degrees. ... The guns roared once more before the last of the night was finally banished, but Garraty barely heard. The first red arc of sun was peering over the horizon, faded behind a fluff of cloud, then came again in an onslaught. It looked to be a perfect day, and Garraty greeted it only half-coherently by thinking: Thank God I can die in the daylight.
The question every reader must ask is: Why? Why would hundreds of boys sign up for a chance to participate in a contest that almost certainly means their death? There could be a feeling of invincibility, an inability to weigh the consequences, a subconscious death wish, the lure of the grand prize ... but these all seem inadequate, and none of the walkers is able to articulate a reason.

We enter the story in medias res – the boys are gathering at the starting line – and we receive bits of each walker's back story as they talk to each other on the Walk. It almost seems as though they have no choice. Competing in the Walk is simply something you do. When Peter McVries asks Garraty, he says honestly, "I don't know." Before the race, Janice had told him, "You don't understand what you're doing", and Garraty now realizes she was right – "and he did not understand it even now". During that first night, Garraty "wondered in terror what he was doing here, walking down this dark road".
[Garraty] found himself still with too many questions and not enough answers. The whole Walk seemed nothing but one looming question mark. He told himself that a thing like this must have some deep meaning. Surely it was so. A thing like this must provide an answer to every question . . .
McVries insists that all of the boys have all been duped. Their lives are meaningless to the state; they are being offered as sacrifices to a callous, violent society under the guise of entertainment. "The reason all of this is so horrible is because it's just trivial. We've sold ourselves and traded our souls on trivialities."
[Garraty] could no long wish he wasn't here; he was too tired and numb for retrospect. What was done was done. Nothing in the world would change it. Soon enough, he supposed, it would even become too much of an effort to talk to the others. He wished he could hide inside himself like a little boy rolled up inside a rug, with no more worries. Then everything would be much simpler.

He had wondered a great deal about what McVries had said. That they had all been swindled, rooked. But that couldn’t be right, he insisted stubbornly to himself. One of them had not been swindled. One of them was going to swindle everyone else . . . wasn't that right?
Garraty is nearly hypnotized by the first boy to potentially get a ticket. A boy named Curley gets a charley horse after only two hours on the road and begins slowing down.
Garraty lost all track of time. He forgot everything but Curley. He watched him struggle . . .

It was the most fascinating thing he had ever seen.

Curley fell back slowly, and several warnings were issued to others before the group realized they were adjusting to his speed in their fascination . . . Garrary could small panic coming off Curley in waves, and it was like the smell of a ripe, freshly cut lemon. . . .

The crowd gasped, as if they hadn't known this was the way it was . . . The safeties clicked off. Bpys scattered from around Curley like quail. He was suddenly alone on the sunwashed road. . . .

The walking boys entered a leafy glade of shadow, some of them looking back, some of them looking straight ahead, afraid to see. Garraty was looking. He had to look. . . .

He wondered if it had hurt Curley. He wondered if Curley had felt the gas-tipped slugs hitting home or if he had just been alive one second and dead the next.

But of course it had hurt. It had hurt before, in the worst, rupturing way, knowing there would be no more you but the universe would roll on just the same, unharmed and unhampered.
Garraty soon becomes immune to the shootings. By the time the sixth boy is shot, "Garraty didn't feel much. He was too tired. He walked around Fenter." Later, he barely hears the gun shots.


As Day 2 begins, Garraty realizes that being physically fit is not enough. There is a mental strength needed, as well.
Thinking, Garraty thought. That's the day's business. Thinking. Thinking and isolation, because it doesn't matter if you pass the time of day with someone or not; in the end, you're alone. He seemed to have put in as many miles in his brain and he had with his feet. The thoughts kept coming and there was no way to deny them. . . .

He looked at the road quite a lot now. Sometimes the white line was solid, sometimes it was broken, and sometimes it was double, like streetcar tracks. He wondered how people could ride over this road all the other days of the year and not see the pattern of life and death in that white paint. Or did they see, after all?

The pavement fascinated him. How good and easy it would be to sit on that pavement. . . . and then to lie down, just fall backward and lie there, spread-eagled, feeling your tired spine stretch . . . looking up at the encircling trees and the majestic wheel of the stars . . . not hearing the warnings, just watching the sky and waiting . . . waiting . . .
At different points, each boy believes he is certain he cannot win – and must consider his impending death. McVries admits that after only 12 hours, "I stopped thinking I had any real chance."
It's hard to say, but . . . I went into it with my eyes open, you know? Lots of these guys didn't, you know? I knew the odds. But I didn't figure on people. I don't think I ever realized the real gut truth of what this is. I think I had the idea that when the first guy got so he couldn't cut it anymore they'd aim the guns at him and pull the triggers and little pieces of paper with the word BANG printed on them would . . . would . . . and the Major would say April Fool and we'd all go home. Do you get what I'm saying at all?
McVries tells Garraty about a recent breakup, but insists the end of that relationship is not why he signed up. At one point, a boy looks at McVries and remarks to Garraty: "I wonder what he's trying to make up for."

When Garraty is given his third warning after 218 miles and still cannot move his cramped legs, he wonders "what a bullet in the head felt like, if it would just be sudden darkness or if he would actually feel his thoughts being ripped apart".

Art Baker wonders about an afterlife: "If there is an . . . an after, I hope it's not dark. And I hope you can remember. I'd hate to wander around in the dark forever, not knowing who I was or what I was doin' there, or not even knowing that I'd ever had anything different."

There was still the unshakable, blind assurances that this organism Ray Garraty could not die. The others could die, they were extras in the movie of his life, but not Ray Garraty, star of that long-running film, The Ray Garraty Story. Maybe he would eventually come to understand the untruth of that emotionally as well as intellectually . . . It was a shivery, unwelcome thought.

The boys are engaged in this gruesome sport for entertainment, and they quickly become contemptuous of the crowds. Some spectators grab the boys' empty food tubes as souvenirs. A bunch of people watch "voraciously" as one walker moves his bowels on the side of the road and some boys wonder if someone will rush out and scoop up the excrement as a keepsake. Families are enjoying picnics along the walk route.

In the boys' tedium and exhaustion, the crowd becomes Crowd, a solid, living entity. As the 37 remaining walkers enter the capital city of Augusta, lights fill the night sky
with a bubble-like pastel glow that was frightening and apocalyptic. . . . They stared at each other uneasily and bunched closer together . . . There was a raw redness in that swelling sound of Crowd. A hunger that was numbing. . . . The town itself had been swallowed, strangled, buried. . . . Only Crowd, a creature with no body, no head, no mind. Crowd was nothing but a Voice and an Eye . . . Crowd was to be pleased. Crowd was to be worshiped and feared. Ultimately, Crowd was to be made sacrifice unto.

They plowed through ankle-deep drifts of confetti. They lost each other and found each other in a sheeting blizzard of magazine streamers.
The crowds respond in a very sexual way to the spectacle of death before them. When Garraty receives his third warning at one point, the crowd was suddenly on alert, watching closely. "The cheers had died away to a muted, almost sexual murmur." After one walker is ticketed, the crowd "made a low sound that might have been a sigh or a groan or an almost sexual outletting of pleasure".

Two girls stand beside an MG: "The faces of these girls were hot, flushed, and excited by something ancient, sinuous, and, to Garraty, erotic almost to the point of insanity." The walkers, too, are sometimes caught up in this feeling. A boy named Gribble actually tries to have quick intercourse with one of the MG girls, but cannot, stumbling back onto the road after receiving his third warning. Garraty sees a young girl with a "Go-Go-Garraty – Maine's Own" sign and runs over and kisses and fondles her, and becomes extremely aroused.


Despite the 1 vs. 99 nature of the race, alliances and friendships are formed. Garraty shares some of his food with Olson. Everyone is shocked to learn that the pre-race favourite, a boy named Scramm, is married and about to be a father. When he gets sick and seems near the end, each of the boys agrees that if he is the winner, he will help support Scramm's widow and child. Garraty and McVries save each other's lives at various points.

The boys also express a collectively hatred for the Major, enacting several small rebellions against the placid, wooden-faced soldiers. They give a collective raspberry to a marching colour guard. Spectators are not allowed to assist the walkers in any way but when a man manages to throw some pieces of watermelon out into the road before being hustled away by soldiers, the boys grab the pieces, break off sections and share it with everyone in the race.

This is another example of the socialism versus capitalism theme in King's early work, with the nearly impotent individual striking back against the faceless, uncaring monolith of power.

I'm stunned that an 19-year-old wrote this book. King did some rewriting before it was published, but one of his professors said that what is in the published version was pretty much there in 1967.

The Long Walk was chosen by the American Library Association as one of the 100 best books (published between 1966 and 2000) for teenage readers.

Next: The Dead Zone.


M@ said...

I'm stunned that an 19-year-old wrote this book.

Me too. I think this is without question the best novel King wrote, although I can't really claim to be familiar with everything he's put out.

I read it when I was about 17 and it's stuck with me ever since.

Jere said...

I'm intrigued as fuck.

A question, though: How can the boys ever see one of them getting shot? Wouldn't that person have fallen so far back that he wouldn't be close to anyone who IS keeping the required pace? With Curly, it sounds like they're all right there with him as he's slowing down and about to be shot (though Kind mentions that they had to "look back").

laura k said...

Now I want to read this book, so thanks for that.

The connections to The Hunger Games are obvious. Less obvious, but more terrible, is the nonfiction version of this long walk, which I recently read about in Dave Eggers' What Is The What - the long, terrible march of Sudanese children, overland, through the most terrible and mortal dangers.

Nice to see the antiwar theme in this, too. I'll put it on my List.

allan said...

How can the boys ever see one of them getting shot? Wouldn't that person have fallen so far back that he wouldn't be close to anyone who IS keeping the required pace?

Never thought of that, but it never doesn't make sense in the book. I imagine that the fear of slowing down has some of them going at 5-6 mph. The boys tend to move around in groups or by themselves (an obvious narrative device but it works). Garraty talks to McVries, then maybe speeds up to talk to someone else. Also, some of the boys try to escape into the woods or attack one of the half-track. And those attempts end pretty quick.

allan said...

Nice to see the antiwar theme in this, too.

I was skeptical at first when I read about it, then I started seeing it throughout the book.

Anonymous said...

In answer to how can they see the others get dont have to completely stop to get a warning, just go under 4mph for 30 seconds. You can actually accumulate 3 warnings in an hour and be seconds away from getting shot before you are able to "walk off" your warning. As you read you will find that there are many. many ways to bite bullet in front of everyone and it all makes perfect sense. Great, great read

Unknown said...

I'm about half way through the Long Walk, and I have to admit, it's an exhausting read. You hope to get to the end as quickly as possible (and are maybe tempted to skip several chapters), but you also feel obligated to stay with the boys through it all, whatever happens. Quite effective writing. (I kind of cheated by reading blogs like this one before finishing.)

I don't buy why most of the boys would volunteer for this competition. The odds are too against them, the task too arduous, and risk too imminent. In that respect, you have to suspend belief that the Long Walk could really happen.

Many of us wonder why King (or Bachman) wrote this book, or what message he was trying to communicate. Several interpretations have been offered, but I found myself often thinking that King just likes to write dirty novels for (maybe?) the entertainment it gives him and some people. The novel is full of crude sexual situations, much more so than any anti-war sentiments. Some might find this perversion perfectly normal, but for me it deterred from my appreciation of King's work. I wouldn't tell a young person not to read The Long Walk, but I also wouldn't recommend this novel as standard high school reading.