(The Long Walk)
The Long Walk appears in The Bachman Books, and if I remember correctly, it came after Rage in the original collection – at least the one that I owned.
The Long Walk is a fantastic book, and one that I’d like to see on screen. Except, I’d imagine that it would be difficult to adapt for the screen, because the title is actually very descriptive – all the characters do is walk.
I often think of The Long Walk when some new dystopian story takes center stage. Mainly, I’m thinking “Stephen King did that first.” I mean, I know Stephen King didn’t write the first dystopian novel, obviously. It’s just that I see elements in The Long Walk that I also see in, say, The Hunger Games – but I prefer The Long Walk’s take on them.
Anyway, the premise of The Long Walk is that every year, 100 boys are picked to walk as long as they can. I mean, there’s a specific route they take, but no defined endpoint – it just ends when they get down to one boy still walking. And they don’t get down to one because the others bow out or even get disqualified or something. They get down to one because any boy who drops below a certain speed, or veers off the path, or stops for some reason, or whatever, gets a warning. And you only get three warnings – then you get shot.
In the beginning, at least, they use euphemisms for getting shot – I’m not clear if the audience isn’t really meant to know right away that that’s how it works, or if the characters are still thinking of themselves as outside of it and are therefore distancing themselves from it by speaking euphemistically. Or some of both. But by the time it actually starts happening, the pretense falls away. The characters may talk about someone “getting his ticket” instead of getting shot, but the narrative and the thoughts of the character whose perspective we’re in make it clear what’s happening.
There’s not a ton of worldbuilding here. The story is too short and focused for that. So, if you think about it too hard, you could end up wondering why the US is sacrificing 99 boys to this thing every year. There’s a somewhat mysterious Major who may or may not be running the country in this reality – even if he’s not, he certainly stands in for the government/military/institutional power in this story. You’d think that a country with a strong military presence, possibly run by a military man, would want to get as many of its young boys to fighting age as possible, not waste nearly a hundred of their lives every single year on a torture exercise.
The US in this reality also seems to have secret police of some sort, and the little bits of worldbuilding we do get point to other signs of oppression – limited free speech rights, for example. So maybe torturing and murdering 100 boys every year is an acceptable loss as some type of object lesson – or just to give the oppressed people something to do instead of thinking about the way they’re living now. On at least one occasion, the long walk is referred to as “our national sport”. Ugh. I’m not a baseball fan, but that thought makes baseball look good. Wonder what happened to baseball in this reality?
Anyway, all that kind of question really leaves you with is more questions. The Long Walk could be picked up whole and transplanted into a longer novel about a dystopian civilization – and if King did that, I’d read it – but that’s not what this is. It gives you some background around the edges, but it’s really just about the walk.
We get the entire thing, from start to finish, because our POV character is the winner. After a fashion, anyway. We also find out how he came to be in the walk. We find out the process, anyway. It seems to be mostly a voluntary thing, and we aren’t really given a good reason for him to have signed up and stuck with it beyond the point where it was permissible to back out. The Prize – put in all caps like that within the story – is apparently anything at all that the winner wants forever, but even that doesn’t seem persuasive enough to me, considering that 99% of the people who start the walk will just end up dying. Maybe some of the participants are just playing an extremely deadly version of the lottery, hoping this will be their big win. But that doesn’t seem to be our main character’s motivation, and he seems smart enough to realize that his death is the likeliest result of his signing up. Maybe this particular dystopia simply produces a lot of suicidal personalities.
So we watch the boys walk. We watch them bond. We watch them close ranks – spectators to the walk are shown, but our main characters and some of the others quickly become fairly disgusted with the people who show up on the side of the road to watch a group of boys die slowly – and sometimes quickly. I mean, they should be disgusted, but that means that it gets pretty insular.
We watch as people our main character doesn’t know or dislikes are shot, and we also watch as people he’s become friends with are shot. We watch as it dwindles down to two – the main character, and the character who has a secret that could spell his triumph or doom. By the time the secondary character is shot and our main character, Ray, wins, Ray has lost it. He sees an invisible walker ahead of him, so instead of sitting down and asking for his Prize, he pushes off the Major and tries to keep going. We don’t find out what happens to him.
The Long Walk is pretty bleak, and my guess is that the winner of the Walk probably dies too. Not just Ray, any winner. I rather suspect that if the powers that be had been giving out an “anything in the world” Prize every year, there would have been more talk about the winners and the things that they asked for and received among the walkers. But there isn’t – it’s like they don’t know what happened to the winners. I could imagine someone winning a contest like that and going off to live in solitude and secrecy with his Prize. But not every year. Plus, I can’t imagine that no one would have asked for something like “abolish the Long Walk” as a prize. It’s enough to raise a suspicion that they aren’t really giving out these Prizes at all, and that the Long Walk winners and anyone who might wonder what happened to them just end up at the mercy of the secret police.
And then there’s what happens to Ray. That can’t be unusual. I’ve called the Walk torture several times throughout this post because that’s what it is. I’m not an expert in torture, but I’d imagine that it leaves people in a fragile mental state more often than not. And this society is more interested in breaking people than fixing them, so what would they do with a broken Walk winner? Shoot him too, most likely, just out of the public eye.
I like this one a lot. It’s not really connected to the larger universe anymore than Rage is, and in some ways it belongs with Rage – it’s an Angry White Boy story if I’ve ever read one. But it’s an interesting and well-written Angry White Boy story, and I like it, even though it’s bleak and makes me sad.
Also, a particular quote from that story has stuck in my mind and surfaced again and again over the past several years. From page 10: “Garraty’s father, before the Squads took him away, had been fond of calling the Major the rarest and most dangerous monster any nation can produce, a society-supported sociopath.” I bet, if you wanted to, you could make a pretty good guess as to who I think that quote applies to in real life. But what if I think it applies to more than one person? I’m a little worried that we’re currently in a society that’s currently in the business of producing these monsters, and that a healthy chunk of society has supported them in the past and stands ready to support them in the future. If one of them could publicly torture a hundred young boys per year, in public, as a “national pastime” what could a whole network of them do?