Stephen King's The Long Walk is a dystopia unlike any I have encountered, much different from Orwell's model in 1984, which establishes a dystopian world, explains how it is governed, and puts readers in the perspective of somebody hoping to change things for the better. King does not set aside additional time to explain the history of this world and how it came to be, and that is a wise decision. We get hints, through conversations, of what happened - Germany won World War II and attacked the U.S. - but nothing about how the world came to be what it is. This seems about right. What we have is a bunch of kids trapped in society and following its rules, whether they like them or not. Too often characters in dystopias seem pulled from our world rather than stuck in their own. And King does an excellent job of sucking us in his perverse little world as well.
Ray Garraty has been selected (we think) for participation in the Long Walk, a sort of national event that is probably on the scale of the Super Bowl. Garraty may have had a choice not to participate, and we only know this because his mother is begging him not to go through with it. He ignores her. Why should she have a problem with it? It's just a test of endurance, seeing who can walk the longest without taking more than a two minute break. Contestants can't walk slower than four miles per hour, and if they do for too long they will receive a warning. You receive three warnings maximum. After that you get a ticket. This ticket, innocent as it may sound, is a bullet fired from a gun.
Also participating are 100 other teenagers, all male. The Major presides over it. He grows chummy with an arrogant kid named Olson, who everyone immediately dislikes. The game isn't just physical, but it's also psychological. A kid who looks chummy with the Major makes everyone else feel inferior. Along with Garraty there is McVries, Stebbins, Baker, Barkovitch, Collie Parker, and Scramm, just to name some of the major players. Most of these characters might be considered friends to Garraty, but in this game friendship has its drawbacks. You can't grow too attached to anybody because eventually he will die, unless he beats you, in which case you die. On the other hand, going on the walk with no friends can sap your sanity.
At the end of the Long Walk, the sole winner wins the grand prize of everything they could want for the rest of their lives. At odds of 1 in 100, that's much better than trying to win the multi-million dollar jackpot. But the odds of dying are much higher, at 99 in 100. Everyone who dies before you simultaneously makes you feel sick and relieved. You know the next bullet could be for you, but at least you're one person closer to winning it all.
The physical terror and the psychological terror go hand-in-hand. After walking for many miles, Garraty, along with the others, begins feeling strange pains in his feet and legs. Somebody develops a leg cramp and can't walk the required four miles per hour. He buys the first ticket, screaming that it isn't fair because he had a leg cramp. The guards that follow along show no emotion as they pull the trigger. Reality sets in as these once cocky teenagers realize they will probably die. Olson quickly loses his swagger as his body begins to wear down and he realizes he had no idea what he was in for. Kids go crazy, hallucinating, babbling bizarre words. Barkovitch takes joy in tormenting others, until he taunts somebody to the point of causing him to get his ticket. After that, McVries, who is Garraty's closest friend, stalks Barkovitch and calls him a murderer. Stebbins walks confidently at the back, going exactly the minimum speed. And then Scramm tells everyone he is favored to win it all, according to Vegas, at least until he develops a cold. On the Long Walk, as in real life, things outside of the teenagers' control brings them back down to earth.
As the walk goes on, Garraty and the rest of them begin to ask themselves, and each other, why they decided to do this. They knew what it was about, so why not pull out? They can't quite come up with an answer. It might have something to do with a fear of their oppressive government, one where people are policed by the Squads. Or it might have to do with the fame. Those who walk the Long Walk become legends. There's the story of the kid who bought his ticket at the starting line because he froze. There's stories about records that were broken. And there are plenty of fans. Right away Garraty finds people cheering his name, including a girl who goes there for the excitement of being fondled and french kissed by him, a story she will be able to share the rest of her life. By the time the novelty wears out, it's too late. The audience changes from this sexually enticing girl into a monstrosity called Crowd, a god that demands sacrifices from the game and can be satiated only by the emergence of a winner.
King originally wrote this as Richard Bachman, an alter ego he used to darker material than even King would dare to face. But in some ways, I find Bachman (in this case at least) to be much more forgiving of human flaws than King. Olson is the perfect example. At the start he is pegged the idiot jock type, the arrogant prick we are meant to hate. However, once Olson realizes his own shortcomings, the tone towards him changes, both from the other contestants and from the reader. We begin to like Olson, to root for him, and to feel sorry for him. The one exception, besides the expressionless soldiers, is Barkovitch. Barkovitch seems like a mad man from beginning to end, with only a small moment of humanity, and his fate is the most bizarre of them all. This attention to the humanity of all of its characters, the jerks and the nice guys, is what makes The Long Walk so engaging and so terrifying. If it was just about watching people walk until they collapsed, it would be a bore, but King also takes a look at what sort of effect this situation - walk or die - has on the minds and bodies of these teenagers.
A part of me wanted to try to see this novel as a metaphor, but I struggled to come up with what it is a metaphor about. Life is the obvious choice, but even this seems wrong. Life isn't really a race. People may die prematurely, they may develop philosophies on life as they begin to understand its true nature, but nobody comes out the victor. Plus, King isn't big on making his stories more than what they are. I see this as more of a satire on humanity's obsession with games. At the start of each chapter is a quote from a different game (including one from football's own Vince Lombardi). This helps establish a real-world connection to King's book. Ever since the beginning of time, people have flocked to watch and participate in games - from Christians being thrown to the lions in ancient Rome to people signing up to participate in Survivor in modern America. King's fear is that if something is made into a game, there won't be a lack of people to participate or to spectate. Even a game as sick and sadistic as the Long Walk, where teenagers are killed pointlessly, and even the winner (if there is one) is likely to suffer irreparable damage.
This is among King's best works. Only he can make a 350 page story about kids who do nothing but walk and talk and die interesting. The outcome seems inevitable, yet like the teens who continue on just to see how long they can last, in the hopes of winning, we also go on, in fascination, to see just how King will end it all. And the ending is just right.