Revisiting The Long Walk by Richard Chizmar
THAT WAS THEN…
When I was a teenager, I spent several summer vacations working a government job at nearby Aberdeen Proving Grounds and Edgewood Arsenal. My duties ranged from laying asphalt to landscaping to pulling up old railroad tracks to shredding government documents.
The summer of paper shredding (as it would come to be known) was a memorable one for a variety of reasons. Firstly, I was assigned to work under a great guy. His name was Lonnie. If I ever knew his last name, it’s long forgotten now.
Lonnie was a hard worker and a good boss. At first, he was quiet and kept mostly to himself. But the more we got to know each other, the more we discovered we had a lot in common, despite our age difference.
Lonnie was a Vietnam veteran and I was (at the time) obsessed with military history, especially the Vietnam conflict. I had read dozens of books on the subject and watched every documentary I could lay my hands on. As Lonnie learned to trust me and respect my curiosity, he shared dozens of stories about his time in Vietnam that I still remember today.
Lonnie also loved fishing, as did I, and in the years following that summer, I would often share my catches with Lonnie and his family.
Finally, Lonnie was a reader. We would often read paperbacks during our lunch breaks. He tended to like science fiction and non-fiction, while my tastes ran more to the dark stuff.
From time to time, cartons of classified documents would come into our shop. As a part-time summer employee, I didn’t have the security clearance to go anywhere near those documents, so when this occurred, I would be banished outside to sweep or, more times than not, pass the time reading a book.
We usually knew ahead of time when classified shipments were scheduled to arrive, so I was usually prepared with a book or a magazine. But from time to time, we were surprised and I was cast out unprepared.
One of those times, after much whining and complaining on my part, Lonnie had mercy on me and walked out to his car and handed me a stack of three or four paperbacks to pick from.
I chose a slim paperback with a red cover by the name of THE LONG WALK by an author I had never heard of.
Lonnie went back inside and closed the door — and spent the next several hours shredding top secret government documents.
I sat down on a hard plastic chair made for middle schoolers and opened THE LONG WALK.
I turned the first page. And then another. Hours passed. Lonnie came out, blinking in the bright sunlight, and told me it was quitting time.
I looked up in a daze and realized I was more than halfway finished with the book.
I asked him if I could take it home and he agreed.
I finished THE LONG WALK that night and returned it to Lonnie the next morning at work.
I remember asking if he had read it yet. He had. He’d liked it quite a bit, but not as much as I had.
We talked about it most of the morning. I told him it reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” He told me it read like a statement on the draft and Vietnam and wondered if that was the author’s intention (this observation long before I had ever read similar theories in numerous reviews and essays).
I told him that Garraty reminded me of a friend of mine. He told me that several of the characters reminded him of people from his past.
I had absolutely no idea that Richard Bachman was actually Stephen King. Either did Lonnie. It wasn’t even an itch deep in our brains.
The rest of the summer passed. We had a lot of great conversations. I learned a lot about life from Lonnie. We read and discussed a lot of good books. And we shredded a crapload of government red tape.
You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff I saw in that little shop.
I could write a book about it…
* * *
THIS IS NOW…
The next time I picked up THE LONG WALK and read it, I knew.
Along with the rest of the world. Richard Bachman was Stephen King. Stephen King was Richard Bachman.
And it all made sense to me — my intense reaction to the novel those many years ago.
I have probably read THE LONG WALK five or six times since that summer. It’s a short novel and a page turner — and despite its grim message, it’s pretty damn wonderful.
I don’t think it’s as “preachy” as Steve claims it to be.
The pacing and characterization are flawless. The narrative drive is relentless.
The ticking clock grows louder and louder with each turning page — with each Walker’s death.
It’s an angry book and an honest book.
I also think it’s a brave book.
And much more mature than it has any right to be. Like most others, I was floored when I first learned that King wrote the novel while still in college.
Hell, I’m still floored.
There are gems of characterization and back story in THE LONG WALK that rival the best of King’s work today and grace notes of passing description that remind me with each re-reading of why I adore this book so much.
Here are a half dozen of my favorites:
Garraty and the others looked to the left. They were passing a graveyard situated atop a small grassy knoll. A fieldstone wall surrounded it, and now the mist was creeping slowly around the leaning gravestones. An angel with a broken wing stared at them with empty eyes. A nuthatch perched atop a rust flaking flagholder left over from some patriotic holiday and looked them over perkily.
They passed the Caribou city limits. There was a large crowd there, and a news truck from one of the networks. A battery of lights bathed the road in a warm white glare. It was like walking into a sudden warm lagoon of sunlight, wading through it, and then emerging again.
The groundfog spread across the road in thin ribbons, like smoke. The shapes of the boys moved through it like dark islands somehow set adrift. At fifty miles into the Walk they passed a small, shut-up garage with a rusted out gas pump in front. It was little more than an ominous, leaning shape in the fog. The fluorescent light from a telephone booth cast the only glow.
On up toward the hour of witches, he thought. When churchyards yawn and give up their moldy dead. When all good little boys are sacked out. When wives and lovers have given up the carnal pillowfight for the evening. When passengers sleep uneasy on the Greyhound to New York. When Glenn Miller plays uninterrupted on the radio and bartenders think about putting the chairs up on the tables, and–
To Ray Garraty it seemed the longest minute of the longest night of his entire life. It was low tide, dead ebb, the time when the sea washes back, leaving slick mudflats covered with straggled weed, rusty beer cans, rotted prophylactics, broken bottles, smashed buoys, and green-mossed skeletons in tattered bathing suits. It was dead ebb.
They stared at each other uneasily and bunched closer together like small boys in a lightning storm or cows in a blizzard. There was a raw redness in that swelling sound of the Crowd. A hunger that was numbing. Garraty had a vivid and scary image of the great god Crowd clawing its way out of the Augusta basin on scarlet spider-legs and devouring them all alive.
These snippets of prose — along with dozens of other wonderful scenes — demonstrate why THE LONG WALK is my favorite of all the Bachman books (with THINNER and BLAZE running close behind).
I know that Frank Darabont has held the film rights to THE LONG WALK for many years, and I can only hope that one day his vision of the Walk will reach the big screen.
Until then, Lonnie and me and millions of other readers will happily make due with the book.
I lost touch with Lonnie three or four years after that summer. He moved away and I went away to college. I think of him often and miss him. I’m grateful for his service to my country and his kindness to me that long ago summer.
And I’m especially grateful for his copy of THE LONG WALK. I wish I had kept it.
* * *
By Chapter 6 the Walkers are already 75 miles into their journey and their numbers have dropped by two dozen. We know the drill by now. We know exactly what comes next after a Walker is given that third and final warning.
But, for me, it’s not until Harkness feels the first panicked aches of a foot cramp, that I truly felt the tension and the terror to come.
Garraty turns around and walks backward, watching Harkness as he removes his shoe and starts to massage his foot, drawing his first and then his second warning. Harkness drops his shoe, reaches for it and misses, and starts walking without it. He knows he can’t spare another second. The soldiers’ guns are aimed and ready.
The carbines came slowly down from high port and found Harkness.
There was a long, terrible moment of silence, and then they went back up again to high port, all according to the rules, according to the book. Then they came down again. Garraty could hear Harkness’s hurried, wet breathing.
The guns went back up, then down, then slowly back up to high port.
The two little leaguers were still keeping pace. “Get outta here!” Baker said suddenly, hoarsely. “You don’t want to see this. Scat!”
The guns came back down. It was like some sort of dance movement, like a ritual. Harkness rode on the edge. Read any good books lately? Garraty thought insanely. This time they’re going to shoot you. Just one step too slow–
Then the guns went back up to high port.
This is the scene where it became real for me.
The watermelon scene!
He was a caricature Italian man, a small guy with a battered felt hat and a black mustache that curled up at the ends. He was beside an old station wagon with the back hatch standing open. He was waving and grinning with incredibly white, incredibly square teeth.
An insulating mat had been laid on the bottom of the station wagon’s cargo compartment. The mat had been piled high with crushed ice, and peeking through the ice in dozens of places, like wide pink peppermint grins, were wedges of watermelon.
Garraty felt his stomach flop over twice, exactly like a flip-rolling high diver. A sign on top of the station wagon read: DOM L’ANTIO LOVES ALL LONG WALKERS — FREE WATERMELON!!!
Several of the Walkers, Abraham and Collie Parker among them, broke for the shoulder at a dogtrot. All were warned. They were doing better than four an hour, but they were doing it in the wrong direction. Dom L’Antio saw them coming and laughed — a crystal, joyous, uncomplicated sound. He clapped his hands, dug into the ice, and came out with double handfuls of pink grinning watermelons.
A couple pages later:
“Goddam,” Collie Parker said happliy. “I’m goddamned, goddam if I ain’t.” He drove his face into the watermelon, gobbled hungrily, then busted his piece in two. He threw half of it over to Garraty, who almost fumbled it in his surprise. “There ya go, hicksville!” Collie shouted. “Don’t say I never gave ya nothin’, ya goddamn rube!”
Garraty laughed. “Go fuck yourself,” he said. The watermelon was cold, cold. Some of the juice got up his nose, some more ran down his chin, and oh sweet heaven in his throat, running down his throat.
As with most of the damn book, the scene turns dark and grim soon enough. But, for a handful of pages, it made me smile and love those boys — and Dom L’Antio — all the more.
Every time I read THE LONG WALK, I am haunted by its closing sentence:
And when the hand touched his shoulder again, he somehow found the strength to run.
SCENE THAT STILL MAKES ME CRINGE…
When a delirious Olson finally loses it in Chapter 10, starts babbling about “God’s Garden” being full of weeds and charges one of the halftracks, only to be gut shot and left to suffer…
“Put him out of it!” a shocked voice screamed hoarsely. “For Christ’s sake, put him out of it!”
The blue snakes of Olson’s intestines were slowly slipping through his fingers. They dropped like link sausages against his groin, where they flapped obscenely. He stopped, bent over as if to retrieve them (retrieve them, Garraty thought in a near ecstasy of wonder and horror), and threw up a huge glut of blood and bile. He began to walk again, bent over. His face was sweetly calm.
CHARACTER I WOULD LIKE TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENED TO…
Ray Garraty, of course.
It’s either him or the Major, and I hate that son-of-a-bitch.
START DATE – March 15, 2015
FINISH DATE – March 18, 2015
The complete list of the books we’ll be reading can be found on the Stephen King Books In Chronological Order For Stephen King Revisited Reading Lists page. To be notified of new posts and updates via email, please sign-up using the box on the right side or the bottom of this site.