When I started reading The Long Walk, it was a let down. Sure, the story got right into it—it being an endurance race between one hundred boys in alternate history north-eastern America—but I’d just put down Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore because I was reading it with someone and I was half done and they needed time to catch up, and Murakami is literature. There was no way The Long Walk would be anything but a dumb paperback yarn to pass the time. It wouldn’t have the heft, the kick or the weirdness. I’d picked it mostly because I wanted a book by Stephen King and the other ones seemed too long.
I don’t know when my opinion of the novel changed. There were hints, passing by like the landscape for the walkers, that this isn’t just mindless pulp. The writing, besides being functional, was good. The phrases turned in interesting directions. And as the boys walked and tired and got increasingly kooky, the book left reality behind right along with them. They quoted the Bible and argued about philosophy. They talked like hardened, educated men. They were boys in image only. Usually that’s a weakness in novels about kids. The author makes them little adults. In The Long Walk, it’s a positive. I don’t want to spend much time with a bunch of normal kids. I want to experience some aspects of youth—walking to the death, the boys get lusty thinking about sex to a degree that wouldn’t be out of place in an eye-rollingly eager porno because, well, they’re boys—but also want to think about the heavier stuff: death, ideologies, the meaning of life. I mean, if I was in this race I don’t think I’d talk about any this stuff even if I thought about it, but as a reader I’m curious, and I admire writers who write for me.
There’s a great flashback in the novel in which one of the main characters, McVries, recounts the time when he and his girl got summer jobs at a pyjama factory. It’s only a few pages long but it’s a shattering story of the tragic unwinding of innocence that we all go through to some degree as teenagers. Damn, I felt for McVries, with his scar and his lost love, his humiliation. Even some of the minor characters, two Hopi brothers for example, are finely drawn. They get matching clothes. They get homophobia. And although they’re not given much explanation, the details are enough to make you feel their plight. They walk because life sucks.
The same goes for the setting. We’re in some alternate reality, vaguely totalitarian, in which crowds cheer and fight themselves to scoop up the shit of kids who’ve gotten shot on the road. The period details and the place details are specific but the historical backdrop is foggy, light pouring through shades of Philip Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. There’s talk of a someone storming a German nuclear facility in Santiago. Why would there be a German facility in Chile? We know that in our world the Germans lost the war but several high-ranking Germans famously found refuge in South America. In the world of The Long Walk, it seems the Germans won the war. It makes sense that they’d expand. As for The United States, it didn’t lose but it did change with the times.
The Long Walk is an angry novel. There’s anger at authority, at impersonality, at the idiocy of bloodthirsty crowds and, especially, at a society that not only lets itself be eaten up by immorality but that participates in the eating, both as the man with the fork and the meat on the plate, for no better reason than: “I don’t know why.” Why did these one hundred boys, and many, many more, agree to go on the walk? Banalities.
There’s a famous Zen story about two brothers sitting by a river. They see a scorpion fall in, start to drown. One brother decides to save it and gets stung in the process. Some time later, another scorpion falls in and, again, the same brother saves it; again he gets stung. The second brother reasonably asks the first, “Why did you save the scorpion if you knew that it’s the scorpion’s nature to sting?” The first brother replies, “Because it is my nature to save.”
The Long Walk is a novel about boyhood friendship in a society that has decided to act against its nature to save—or, perhaps more chillingly, discovered that saving was never in its nature in the first place. There’s a matter-of-factness to the killings in the novel, of which there are ninety nine. Yet death is never described matter-of-factly. It is by turns gruesome (heads explode in a “hammersmash” of brains), tragic or painful. One death in particular, near the end of the novel, has a profound emotional impact. The crowd cheers. Yet King’s writing is the counter-point to his creation of the Crowd, which he describes by proper noun as a mindless, seething organism that has swallowed up the identities of all those within it. In a generally pissed off novel, it’s this passive collaboration that gets that extra spray of vinegar to go with the piss.
The Long Walk was published in 1979. A year earlier, Vaclav Havel published his essay “The Power of the Powerless” in which he described life in a totalitarian state through the narrative device of a green grocer. As Wikipedia says:
Havel uses the example of a green grocer who displays in his shop the sign Workers of the world, unite!. Since failure to display the sign could be seen as disloyalty, he displays it and the sign becomes not a symbol of his enthusiasm for the regime, but a symbol of both his submission to it and humiliation by it. Havel returns repeatedly to this motif to show the contradictions between the “intentions of life” and the “intentions of systems”, i.e. between the individual and the state, in a totalitarian society.
An individual living within such a system must live a lie, to hide that which he truly believes and desires, and to do that which he must do to be left in peace and to survive.
…they must live within a lie. They need not accept the lie. It is enough for them to have accepted their life with it and in it. For by this very fact, individuals confirm the system, fulfill the system, make the system, are the system.
I suppose we each create connections between things that are fresh in our minds (I’ve recently read about Havel in Marci Shore’s The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe) because we have a need to understand, a circumstance that leads to many undergraduate essays offering useless insights into unrelated things, but that I was thinking about this—about anything—while reading The Long Walk is itself an about turn from my initial expectations. The story is tense, the characters are memorable, the quality of writing improves as the novel goes on, leading to plenty of wonderful sentences in the second half, but, most of all, there are ideas. This isn’t a silly, stupid novel for young adults. It’s a good piece of literature. It won me over. I’m glad I read it.