Returning to The Long Walk by Ed Gorman
I couldn’t wait to read the Bachman books. By that time I was rereading the early Stephen King bestsellers simply because I needed a fix. I am of the age when realistic fiction was the standard form of the masters. In my top ten of novels is In Dubious Battle by John Steinbeck. And the first trilogy I ever read was Studs Lonigan by James T. Farrell. Proletarian fiction if you will.
I’ve always maintained that Stephen King is the last of the working class novelists. I realize that the socio-economic background of his characters range up and down the scale. But I think his soul is with the folks he grew up with. He can break your heart with his take on the lives of average people.
And it is average people, teenage boys, King gives us in this spot on science fiction short novel about a militaristic government and a thrill-hungry populace drugged on spectacles of agony and violence.
So what we have here is a hundred teenage boys enduring a brutally competitive walk that ends only when all but the last one is eliminated. And by “eliminated” I generally mean has died from either sheer exhaustion or for violating the rules. An example of said rules: if you don’t keep moving at four miles per hour or better—and you are warned about this three times—you get shot by the soldiers tracking you on the sidelines.
The man who supervises all this is known as “The Major,” a John Fordian figure who at start of the book introduces the boys to the reality of the Walk, the grim trek from the Maine-Canadian border down the east coast.
Through his protagonist, sixteen-year-old Ray Garraty, King lets us know that the boys have spent a long time preparing for this day. In the opening scene, and a perfect way to set up the book, Ray’s mother brings him to the site where the Walk begins. She’s dreading what Ray is about to embark on. Ray, despite some anxiety, is ready for an adventure.
The boy who triumphs will win the equivalent of a giant lottery. More spectacle for the slopes watching at home. Aw, shucks our government is a good and just and warm fuzzy government after all. Slopes don’t ask a lot of questions.
All the studying and rumination the boys have done has led them to believe that they pretty much know what The Walk will be like. There’s an ancient Arab saying that applies here: ”Unless you have experienced something, it is not real.” You can read about the Walk all you want but until you’re standing there about to embark on it—boots on the ground you might say—you can’t know how physically and spiritually exhausting it will become. And how deadly.
Ray Garraty keeps his essential decency intact as he witnesses the effects of the Walk on the others. Ominous as the armed soldiers are the real threats come from the boys themselves. Some of them quickly realize that they will never finish the Walk, that they have been laboring under a terrible delusion. Some of them are humiliated by their own weakness; they are still children. And some of them crack up. There is humor, bravado, terror, madness. King excels at using small groups to power his narratives and here his characters are sharply and compellingly defined.
The Long Walk is a perfect example of Stephen King’s grasp of storytelling. Right from the git-go.
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Ed Gorman has been called “one of the most original voices in today’s crime fiction” by Kirkus Reviews. Gorman’s work has appeared in magazines as various as Redbook, Ellery Queen, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and The New York Times Magazine. His work has won numerous prizes, including the Shamus, the Spur, the Anthony and the International Fiction Writer’s award. He’s been nominated for the Edgar, the Golden Dagger, and the Bram Stoker. Two of his books have been filmed, one as the acclaimed TV movie “The Haunted,” the other as the feature film “The Poker Club.”
Amen Ray. Amen.
I reread this last year and was struck by how real the characters felt and how powerful the story was.
The Long Walk is rarely mentioned when people are asked to name their top King books. This one belongs in that group.
My most reread book and in my top 10 all-time. I’m amazed he wrote it when he was, what, 20?
Yes, 19-20. A college freshman.
Terrific essay, Mr. Gorman. By the way, I’m getting near the end of Elimination and enjoying the heck out of it.
Still one of my favorites. Should have been a movie a long time ago!
True, but given the way Hollywood completely f’d up The Running Man I think it’s better that this was left alone…
Wonderful essay, Mr. Gorman. I read The Long Walk quite late — maybe five years ago, and still feel the powerful rawness of it in my very core as I think about it now. That is the only SK book I would not care to read again… just TOO unnerving of them all.
“The Long Walk” is my favorite of the Bachman books, and one of my Top Ten King novels. The description of King as a working class novelist is apt, although he’s certainly not the last of them. Richard Russo, in novels like The Risk Pool and Empire Falls, artfully depicts working class characters in rural Northeastern settings. I first read “The Long Walk” when I was about the same age as Ray Garrity, and I’ve always felt he was the most realistically drawn of King’s teenage male characters, most likely because King himself was still virtually a teenager when he first created him.
I read the Long Walk when I was a teenager and it is still one of the few stories that I can vividly remember. I think it is the best Stephen King story or at least one of the top three.
I loved the essay, Mr. Gorman. Stephen King did some great storytelling with that one.
When I was a younger man, I got on a treadmill and set it at 4 MPH. Doesn’t sound like much until you’re doing it. I wouldn’t have made it very far. My fave of the Bachman collection. Thatnks (?) for making me wait to read it again.