Books of Doug: #1
First off, if you haven't already, read this:
Books of Doug Mission Statement
Books of Doug #1: Richard Bachman's The Long Walk
Before reality television, before Battle Royale, before the Patriot Act, before he gave up the pseudonym 'Richard Bachman,' Stephen King wrote a slim gem of a novel in the year I was born, 1979. The premise, though deceptively simple, is nearly impossible to relate in a satisfying way. The story is set in the near future, in an America which is just slightly dystopian. Every year 100 young men approximately 16-18 years of age are selected at random out of a pool of hundreds of thousands of applicants to compete in what has become America's premiere 'sporting/reality television' competition. These 100 boys gather on May 1st at the Maine/Canada border. At 9:00am they all begin walking south, and must keep a pace of at least 4mph. If they fall below this speed they are given a warning. If they remain under this speed for an addition minute they are given a second warning. Warnings can also be obtained for a variety of offenses such as attacking a fellow walker. If a walker is warned a third time and still does not pull things together he is given 'his ticket' and is out of the walk. Of course this being a King story, the 'ticket' is a bullet in the head.
The first objection to such a story might be, 'well, its just a bunch of kids walking and dying.' And i would respond, "Yes. That's exactly why it is so good." There is zero artifice here. We get to know a great many of the walkers through the eyes of Ray Garraty, the protagnist everyman type, and much of the novel revolves around the mundane. Talking, boasting, playing, arguing, bullshitting, eating, dozing, etc. It is because the contents of the Walk are so everyday that both its horrific premise and its philosophical themes resonate so clearly. This is not Battle Royale where kids are forced to put a weapon in their hand and kill their fellow classmates and the most vicious, violent and clever walk away in the end. But in a certain sense it is no different. Weapons are replaced by one's own will-power, one's desire to live. You still have to 'kill' everyone else, you just let them do the honors of bowing out on their own.
Yet it is the humanity between the competitors in the Long Walk which is the most striking features. King has always been an expert character author, and by the time we are 5 miles down the road he has created a host of likeable, wonderful, complex, and dark young men. By the time each of these boys reach the end of their tethers you are rooting for them to go further, you care about them, you relate to them, they remind you of someone you grew up with, or someoby you wish you grew up with. And this empathetic reaction can only be achieved through very plain, realistic writing.
King's prose is just that. It is also full of gore and violent imagery but I needn't have to point out, so is life. His writing can be painfully bad at times, at one point in my life I decided to 're-write' this story on my own, and I even began copying the novel, sentence for sentence, 'improving' sentence structure and word choice where i could, for the first few chapters until I realized what I was doing was ridiculous. King's prose for the most part is sound enough, and when it fails it doesn't sink the ship. The only way it would was if his philosophy was ornate and over-complicated and over-wrought like so many young authors strive for these days. King's themes are humble and almost transparently simple. Everyone, walker or no, has their own road to travel and when it is your time to buy out, you do, and the only thing that was important along the way was treating your fellow man with respect and diginity, helping them in their times of need as much as you can, making their lives as fun and happy and joyful as possible for what little time we share with them.
The fact that this dystopian future is so close to actually being here is another matter which greatly enhances the appeal of the book. Personal liberties have been restricted to protect the country against, in the case, certain unnamed communist and fascist regimes that would seek to ruin America. America in return has become a sort of totalitarian state where people disappear if they are enemies of peace or speak out against the government. King calls this disappearing act 'being squadded.' Garraty's Father who plays a much more important role in the novel than he might first appear to, is one such political dissident. Yet the populace must be placated too, thus the advent of events like ther Long Walk which has become kind of like the super bowl, march madness, the world series, and American Idol combined. Billions are wagered on who will win, what total number of miles each walker will walk. Millions crowd the sides of the roads for the chance to see someone get their ticket, or to grab a discarded shoe or other much more disturbing souvenirs. Ancient Rome's gladitorial arena is echoed here, but also the crowds around the Reign of Terror's public executions. If anyone is the villain or antagonist of the Long Walk it is King's rendering of the Crowd, a blank, faceless wall of bloodlust and human depravity.
Against this wall the walkers stand out as if spotlighted. They tell jokes, miss their girlfriends/wives, reminisce about their favorite moments growing up, miss their moms and dads, tell stories, live life. And then of course they die. They die from foot cramps, from sun-stroke, from malnutrition, from blisters, from bad luck, from lack of fitness, but mostly from fatigue. Some try and escape off the road and are shot as soon as their foot leaves the pavement, one of the few times you don't get a warning. Two even storm the rumbling half-track tank-like vehicle that drives beside the walkers and carries the soldiers and their equipment which keeps tabs on the walkers speeds and whereabouts. But they all die except for one.
Now the first question Lara asked me when I told her the plot of the Long Walk was, "why would anyone sign up for this horrible thing?" For lots of reasons, the least applicable but most obvious one being the 'Prize'. If you win, the goverment supplies you with anything you could ever want for the rest of your life. The catch, of course, is that by the time there is only one person left standing said person is usually in a pretty bad state, their desires are leveled to basic necessities, and the prize often just turns out to be one's life. Other reasons for signing up are less obvious and have to be inferred. Perhaps this version of America, while far from Stalin's Russia, is not a very pleasant place to live, or it is hard to work one's way up in life. Many of the walkers are poor, in fact all of them that we are introduced to are lower middle class or less. Walkers also attain a brief but awesome kind of celebrity. And there is certainly a sort of masculine stoic pride involved, of proving that one is not afraid of overwhelming odds, that one is man enough to walk down every one of one's peers, of bending others to one's will.
Yet one of the stars of the Long Walk, a kid named Pete McVries figures out the most likely reason. Suicide. Its basic and it's freudian as hell, it's the death drive laid out on a bare table for everyone to see. But like the death drive it isn't so simple. Because the death drive is also simultaneously the the desire to live one's life to the fullest, and the walkers certainly do that, albeit at an accelerated pace. To live one's life in just a few days.
There are some wonderful moments here, during the 'living'. Ray Garraty spends most of the first 3/4s of the novel walking through Maine because he knows that in his home town he will get to see his girlfriend and his mother. Doubts as to whether he will make it that far (more than half of his friends don't) or see them in the thick crowd haunt him the entire way. But when he finds them he doesn't have any warnings and he gets to stand with them, holding their hands, mouthing sentiments over the deafening crowd noise. Yet in the end McVries has to drag Garraty away from his loved ones against his will shouting 'what do you want Ray? Do you want the last thing they'll remember you by is the stink of your blood on their clothes?" Lest we forget this is a horror story after all.
The end of the Long Walk is as powerful as it is enigmatic. I won't go so far as to tell you who wins, though it becomes clear enough once you are only a few pages in. It is how they win that is so disturbing. No, they don't kill anyone, and they don't pull off some miraculous feat. They simply carry on further than anyone else. But that's not important. What is important comes next. As the Jeep rolls up carrying the grand marshal of this event, the Major as he is called, the last boy standing stops walking. He stares at the Jeep but then sees a figure, either dressed in black or in silhouette standing on the horizon. As the Major claps his hand on his shoulder the boy shrugs it off, begins walking to the mysterious figure. When the major claps down once more the boy "finds enough inside himself to run."
There is a huge debate as to who or what this figure represents. Some say it is the personification of Death, and that at this moment the last boy left dies. Or that this figure appears to lead the last boy into 'whatever comes next' after life. I prefer to think, whether or not the last boy lives or dies, that this black figure is his Father, or someone else in his life, someone he has lost, and he is delusional, perhaps lost his mind. Maybe it is a combination of some of these theories. Maybe the boy dies, sees his Father and runs with him into 'whatever comes next.' In either case the ambiguity, something which King is careful to avoid throughout the entire length of the stark, plain novel, has an awesome force. Like Garraty's girl and mother in Freeport, the last page alone is enough to keep me going further, reading this novel again and again.
Other notable works by King that came close to making 'the Books of doug" and might appear later in the series if I decide that the one book by one author rule is silly and arbitrary:
The Eyes of the Dragon
The Dark Tower Series
The Talisman (with Peter Straub)