The Long Walk by Richard Bachman

TheLongWalkKids in America take the Long Walk in a 1979 sports novel (of a sort) by Richard Bachman. One hundred boys set out, and they will walk day and night, in rain or shine, until one by one they are (literally) eliminated from the competition for slowing down or stopping. Whoever endures the longest will be the winner – everyone else will be dead.

The story focuses on 16-year-old Ray Garraty, who falls in with a small group of other Walkers – “The Musketeers”, they call themselves. Their motives for signing up for the race are stunningly vague; most of them seem to be in it just because they have a death wish, implying that in the ultra-conservative future of the Long Walk youth suicides are made into a spectator sport (perhaps in order to improve statistics, to show how mentally healthy the society is under the new regime?).

The novel follows its simple countdown structure doggedly throughout, not once deviating from it. There’s very little backstory, and none of the outside world is fleshed out in any detail, except for the big brother style figure of “the Major” who runs the Walk, and the seething, bloodthirsty crowds, who are almost an entity unto themselves. But basically there’s just the Walk, starting from the Canadian border and snaking its way down through Maine towards Boston, and the patter of 100 pairs of feet on the asphalt.

It does get a bit tedious after a while. That may be the point; the competition is explicitly made out to have a psychological aspect as well, and it’s hinted that some winners have gone insane. No wonder, watching 99 fellow walkers get blown away would presumably trigger a hell of a survivor’s guilt (there’s no doubt some symbolism with the Vietnam war at the root of the novel). The novel’s severely limited approach is structurally great; as entertainment, however, it doesn’t quite maintain its sparkle throughout, with the latter half visibly dragging (like some of the Walkers by that point).

While the novel is the first one Stephen King ever wrote, it does contain some strikingly well-written passages. The landscape of Maine as the road twists and turns is brought vividly to life, and most of the Walkers are given personal characteristics, even those who only appear for a sentence or two. There are some odd details – some walkers apparently wear leather and jeans – making sports of the future seem decidedly retro.

*** (3/5)