The premise for The Long Walk, a book written by Stephen King under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, would not be out of place on the Young Adult shelf at your local bookstore. In an vaguely dystopian America, one hundred teenage boys have entered a macabre competition. One morning they set off on a walk, and the last one still walking wins. They have to keep a constant pace of four miles per hour, no bathroom breaks, no sleep, no excuses at all. They get three warnings if they fall below the pace, on the fourth instant the guns ring out.
Our protagonist is one Ray Garraty, a local boy competing in the walk in his native Maine. Ray is a normal teenaged American male with an overbearing mother and a pretty girlfriend he wishes would let him go all the way. So why did he volunteer for the Long Walk? Why would anyone?
As the boys get to know one another over the course of the walk, that’s the question they keep coming back to. Sure, they spend a lot of time talking about girls and bodily functions and trading juvenile insults, but it always comes back to the Walk. Why are you doing it? Do you think you can win? What will you do with The Prize, defined here as anything you want for the rest of your life?
Like the Walkers, King sticks strictly to the road. The whole novel takes place during the Walk, dramatized through conversations between the competitors and Ray’s inner monologue as he struggles to keep “picking ’em up and putting ’em down.” Ray becomes very close to some of the other boys, but there is an ever-present edge to these relationships. How close can you be to someone you need to die in order to live? As more and more Walkers drop out the tension between the survivors intensifies and provokes some extreme behavior.
What we don’t get from King is much in the way of context. This funhouse mirror version of America seems to be similar culturally to our own, but references to greater government control and some alternate history suggest a country under authoritarian rule, but the mechanism of how this came to pass is unrevealed. Though there are hints that the Long Walk has its detractors, there’s nothing like an organized resistance to it evident in King’s story. All we get are 100 boys, walking down a road until the next to last one drops. At times, it feels like an artificial constriction, as though King, or Bachman if you will, just wanted to see what he could wring out of such a limited premise. Eventually, the reader becomes like the throngs at the side of the road, just hanging around waiting for the Walkers to die already.