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The Long Walk

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The Vitals

The Context

Like most writers, King began writing stories long before he was published. Though some of the early chronology is hard to suss out, it seems that The Long Walk was one of the first books that King started writing, likely as a freshman at the University of Maine in the mid-1960s.

The inspiration for the simple story was the mid-1960s fad of organized 50-mile walks. That’s right — ultra-long walks used to be a fairly popular pastime. John F. Kennedy himself brought the idea to the forefront of American culture after he observed some post-WWII softness setting in among ordinary citizens. Some of these walks would even be broadcast on radio and television programs.

King took that little nugget and, as he’s so good at, turned it into a dystopian contest of life and death.

The Story

One hundred teenaged boys are participating in the annual Long Walk. We’re in a dystopian future, which, naturally, means that there’s only one winner — the boy who remains alive at the end.

The Long Walk is broadcast on TV and citizens in local towns lines the streets as the boys walk by. Ray Garraty is our primary protagonist, and though we meet a number of other boys along the way, most of them, inevitably, end up cut down by the Squads.

The reader doesn’t get much background info — we don’t know the genesis of the Long Walk, we don’t know why we’re in a dystopia, we don’t know much about any of the boys’ backgrounds; it’s just 100 teenagers walking as far as they can . . . until they can’t walk anymore and they’re eliminated.

That’s the rules: if you fall below a 4 mph pace, you’re given three warnings and then the Squads pull out their rifles.

It’s brutal. And it’s so simple. There’s no fluff at all — it’s as lean as a Stephen King book gets.

Because of that, though, I actually had a hard time connecting with any of the characters. There was no warmth, no real friendship or camaraderie (because they’re all competing against each other, after all), no reason to root for any of the boys.

Perhaps oddly, I also found the dialogue to be more grown-up than what was realistic for a bunch of teen boys. It was more mature than I’d expect . . . it’s possible that this is actually a product of King initially writing this story at such a young age. Maybe, just maybe, he wrote teens having adult-like conversations because he wanted his writing to appear older and more mature than it really was.

What Is It Really About?

This is the big question that I like to ask after every book I read. What is this story really about? What’s the defining theme? For every Stephen King book, this is the section where I’ll get into the one or two themes that stood out the most. It’s not exhaustive, but very much about how I personally encountered the story.

Given the nature of our social media-saturated culture, I was almost more interested in the spectators than the walkers. People will accept just about anything when it’s framed as entertainment. I mean, that’s the premise of reality television as a whole, is it not?

It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but it does create an environment where we’ll accept the absurd and call it fun, even when it turns toxic, inhuman, and downright cruel.

Be mindful of what you consume as entertainment — particularly when it’s under the guise of “news.”

Overall

The Long Walk is often treated as an underrated favorite among King uber-fans, but I don’t quite agree. It’s meant to be spare, but I think that philosophy went just a bit too far in this particular story. I had a hard time connecting with the characters and found myself just wanting the narrative to reach its conclusion, despite the fact that it’s one of King’s shorter novels. Three out of five stars.

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