The Long Walk (1979)
The Long Walk is among the earliest published examples of King’s novel-writing talent, written during the school year 1966-1967, when King was a freshman at the University of Maine at Orono. More controlled, perhaps, than Rage, and with a more complex cast of characters, The Long Walk also represents a long stride forward in King’s novelistic techniques, including his control of tone, pacing, and mood as the story progresses from its almost light-hearted beginnings through a systematic and inevitable descent into darkness. As do each of the other Bachman novels, The Long Walk demonstrates a countdown to obsession and madness based on the simplest of narrative threads; in this case, in a near-future riff on Selective Service, King gives us a world in which each year 100 young men around the age of eighteen start out from upstate Maine and walk south. The winner of the Long Walk will receive anything he wants for the rest of his life. The rules of the Walk are simple: no interfering with another Walker, no veering from the designated path…and no stopping.
Walkers who stop once are warned.
Walkers can receive three warnings.
Then they are shot…even if they are already dead from exhaustion, despair, heartbreak, or sheer physical breakdown.
The result is a novel that in an oddly positive way is as fatiguing to the readers as the Long Walk is to the boys walking. Readers are invited into the mind of Ray Garraty as he works through level after level of intellectual, physical, spiritual, and psychological engagement, testing the limits of human motivation, frustration, fear, loneliness, terror, exhaustion, and finally compassion, desperation, and the ultimate horror of madness. Since Garraty is from the outset the principle point-of-view character (as well as the local odds-on favorite to win the Walk, being “Maine’s Own”), there is little surprise at the ending. There is surprise, however, at how compelling and devastating that ending is, and how the young King manages to rivet readers’ attention on the undeviating progress of a dwindling group of human scarecrows staggering raggedly, ever southward, toward Boston. Initially, time is carefully counted; Garraty’s watch is consulted frequently, and miles and hours passed are central concerns for the Walkers. As the book nears its end, however, time itself seems to warp; day and night become indistinguishably bleak. One boy’s identity merges into that of another, and another; and the Crowd becomes a single monstrous entity, a screaming throat surrounding Garraty and the pitiable handful who survive into the final pages.
There are, of course, brief flurries of action to break the ongoing stasis of the Walk. One boy runs to the crowd to embrace a tauntingly beautiful girl—and for his sexual impetuosity earns three warnings and nearly loses his life. Another attacks the half-truck accompanying the Walkers and is gutshot as a warning to the rest. Garraty himself almost dies when he receives his third warning as he reaches out desperately for his girlfriend’s hand in the crowd. And so it goes. Walk. Talk. Walk more. Walk. And die.
Within this taut narrative scheme, however, King has exploited a mine of opportunity for characterization. Some of the Walkers remain unchanged from their introductions to their deaths; even these minor figures, shadowy as they might be, show King polishing his hand at deft creation of strikingly individual characters, often within a sentence or two that describe habitual actions, clothing, language, movements. As does Garraty, readers may at times confuse the names of character, but rarely their essences, their true nature. The handful of central Walkers that form Garraty’s unofficial company—Peter McVries, the closest Garraty comes to a friend among the Walkers; the inscrutable and obnoxious Stebbins; Olson, Baker, and the others—open themselves even more completely as we see then walk, hear them talk about life and death and love and hope and emptiness.
The Long Walk is, in its own way, as preachy as Rage. It differs from the earlier novel, however, in that King carefully connects his long passages of internal monologue to the increasing dissociation from reality Garraty and the others experience, as literally every part of normal life and normal memory falls away leaving nothing but the exposed souls of the boys—children sacrificed (as so often in both the “Bachman” novels and the “King” novels) to the unfathomable and apparently insatiable needs of the adult world.
Central to the Walk and hence to the story, but paradoxically missing through most of its length, is The Major, the leader in this future dystopia, who passes in and out of the Walkers’ consciousness, appearing in his military jeep and military clothing and military sunglasses to urge them on to greater effort. The father-figure that seems absent from every life touched on in the novel, he represents precisely the kind of rarely seen, never understood, shadowy authority that King pillories in Rage and Christine and It and elsewhere, his face “kind but unreadable behind the mirror sunglasses” (Bachman Books 433).
But even beyond him, there is the other figure, hinted at in the final pages of The Long Walk (and in a poem written at about the same time) and developed in The Stand, The Eyes of the Dragon, The Dark Tower Series, and Needful Things—the dark figure, “up ahead, not far, beckoning….for him to come and walk, to come and play the game” (433). And the game is insanity and death.
With the intrusion of that figure, we know that there can be no winner to The Long Walk. In an imaginary science-fictional world that is really our world stripped to its essential needs, without resorting to techno-jargon or high-tech surfaces, King compels readers on long walks that take them to the heart of living and dying…and one step beyond.
At the end, it is hard to forget the grim irony implicit in King’s opening quotation from John Kennedy: “I would encourage every American to walk as often as possible. It’s more than healthy; it’s fun.”