Best things in life: books, beaches, cats, chocolate, sunsets, sleep
I originally read this sometime in the 1980s, and the novel is both as I recall and not as I recall. I certainly remembered the basic storyline of teenage boys in a contest that is akin to the Hunger Games but done as simply a walk down a highway with no stopping or rest breaks allowed. Yet I had this idea that it was a short story which it is not.
The story is told as a first person narrative by Ray Garraty, a 16 year old boy from Maine. The long walk contest consists of 100 young men (18 or younger) who begin the walk in Maine (a setting King virtually always uses), and as I have already noted, must walk continuously until there is only one boy left. They are given water and food concentrates, but no other help may be given to them by anyone other than their fellow walkers. They can't walk slower than 4 miles an hour and are given only 3 warnings before they are eliminated from the race. It becomes a contest not only of physical endurance, but of mental and emotional stamina as well. But when it comes down to it, it is really a story of friendship. Garraty and some of the other walkers form emotional bonds that are the core of the novel.
I have issues with Stephen King giving us no real background as to why the long walk is contested each year in the book. The setting is in Maine in a United States that is somewhat like it was when King wrote it. The 50 states still presumably all exist and there are cars and fast food places and so on. But the government is clearly not the same, and the man in charge of the long walk is some powerful figure called the Major. Whether or not he is the leader of the country is never revealed. At one point one of the boys mentions something about when there used to be millionaires, so clearly things are different. Additionally there are several references to the Squads which are from the police or the military which may come take people away much like the KGB in the Soviet Union. And the long walk is referred to as an event that has occurred for many years. I would have liked some sort of short explanation about the government to better understand why there would ever be an event like the long walk in the first place. The lack of some of the background information just annoyed me. Of course not knowing does not affect the story or my enjoyment of it, it just bugged me. Enough said
It is not easy to read about the anguish of the walkers as they all fall apart physically and emotionally. The winner of the contest apparently can have whatever prize he wishes. Maybe for the rest of his life which again is something that isn't made clear. What happens to these young men emotionally is the main theme. The boys connect with each other but also spend much time alone with themselves in their heads. And it drives some of them crazy in the end.
“That's the day's business. Thinking. Thinking and isolation, because it doesn't matter if you pass the time of day with someone or not; in the end, you're alone. He seemed to have put in as many miles in his brain as he had with his feet. The thoughts kept coming and there was no way to deny them.”
Pretty powerful stuff and definitely worth a read.