I read this book when it was released in The Bachman Books back in 1985 and it stuck with me until now. I remembered the grueling walk and that the main character is the winner, but the meat of the book was lost over the years. Because I enjoyed it so much then I decided I should read it again now.
The story is about one hundred boys teenaged boys that go on The Long Walk. This is a walk at four miles per hour, continuously. There is no stopping for any reason, none at all. Any stopping is met with a warning. Three warnings and the boy is shot on the spot. Attempt to leave the road and you’re shot. Anyone watching cannot interfere or give aid. Any warning can be walked off in one hour. The winner is the last boy walking.
Each walker applies for the honour of participating and must pass a physical and a written exam, including an essay on why you want to join. The prize for winning is anything you want for the rest of your life.
This book takes place over five days of continuous walking. Each walker that dies is mentioned, the author doesn’t skip any, although some are merely a passing reference to the sound of gunshots and a body falling. Others are given a more gruesome end.
This was originally written in 1979 and it shows. I didn’t notice the terminology or flinch at certain words the first time around, but there was no reason to. I was old enough to understand the references and felt like it fit in with society as I knew it then. Now, however, I could see where a lot of it was definitely a product of its time.
The main character, Ray Garraty, is struggling with perhaps feeling some sexual interest in other men. This isn’t outright stated anywhere, the author mentions that Ray has a girlfriend and enjoyed making out with her quite a lot. But Ray also experimented a bit with another boy, saying it was the boy’s suggestion to strip down and touch each other, and also doesn’t quite shy away from another male character offering a hand job. I didn’t see this the first time around, but now I wonder if the bisexuality was intentional and perhaps a reason why Ray signed up. Several characters mention that they signed up to die, as a slow version of suicide, because they knew what was expected, they knew walkers were shot. Although knowing this and experiencing it are two very different things. One or two of the characters say they thought the gun would have a paper flag that said ‘bang’ on it, rather than a real bullet.
I also think Ray inadvertently killed the second-to-last walker. As Ray went up to him and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder, the boy turned and said, “Oh, Garraty!” and fell down. Since both walkers were near-dead, I wonder if Ray accidentally gave this other boy a heart attack by surprising him like this.
While I was engrossed every step of the way I also noticed the writing was a bit clunky or clumsy. I think if this was written today an editor might be a bit more harsh about things like fragments of ideas, dialogue that wasn’t quite smooth, and what might be some shifting pov problems.
This book was just as creepy as the first time I read it, just as disturbing, and just as engrossing. The author has a talent for describing mounting psychological horror and mental breakdowns especially in the earlier works like this one. The goriness is also described easily, as easily as one would describe a meal, and something I’ve come to expect from the author. One thing stands out though, and it’s something that stood out when I first read the book: the author describes bodily functions like urinating, defecating, and even ejaculation. Most other authors skip this as the reader innately understands that bodies do these things, but this author includes the information. For this book, it was relevant to the plot and added a facet to the characters.
It’s never explained why this contest is held every year or what kind of world would have such a brutal contest. That banged around in my brain quite a lot but I was satisfied with the book without the answer.
Would I recommend this book? Maybe, as long as the reader is prepared to read something from a different time, with different references, and possibly offensive language and word choices. The story itself is hauntingly good.