Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Long Walk - Stephen King

The Long Walk
Whenever Kevin and I head up to Michigan to visit his family, I try to pick out an audio book for us.  We have a few standard podcasts that we intersperse with the book, but it helps to have something longer than an hour to entertain us for the 10-hour round trip.

A key element of choosing a book is finding one to which my dear husband will actually want to listen.  As I've mentioned before, he needs there to be plenty of action to keep him engaged.

Unfortunately for me, few of the books I have On Reserve or that Modern Library classified as top 100 fall into this category in his mind.  The Call of the Wild has been our only real successful compromise in this area.

I'm not picky on content.  You know me - I'll read about anything.  I just need to be able to stand listening to the reader's voice for hours on end.  Seriously - how do some of these people get hired to read aloud?

Usually, I completely forget about getting a book until the afternoon we leave or the night before.  At that point, I frantically search our library's digital offerings for something that meets all necessary qualifications.

I usually do end up with something acceptable and off we head with some author's sweat and blood pouring from our mediocre car stereo. With this method, we've experienced the thrills of ambulance chasing, cult killings, and Vatican bomb threats.  Now, we've added Stephen King and his gory imagination to our list.

I read my second Stephen King novel last year.  11/22/63 does not fit his typical mold.  Unlike his classic horror novel, Carrie, which I read at some unremembered point in college, 11/22/63 focuses on a modern man's attempt to stop the Kennedy assassination through time travel.  I really loved the book - probably because it mixed in a significant dose of history.

The Long Walk falls much closer to Carrie than it does to 11/22/63.  I snagged this book because it was the only audio book by King I saw immediately available.  I knew King would keep both Kevin and I interested.  He did not fail us there.

The book, set in a world in which modern history had gone very differently than in our world.  King never really spells out what exactly happened.  My guess from the little he offers is that WWII ended very differently.  Regardless of the setup, in this world, every year on May 1st, 100 teenage boys gather in Maine to begin the Long Walk.  They must walk continuously at 4 mph or faster.  If at any point they drop below that pace, they are given a warning.  If they surpass three warnings, (SPOILER ALERT) they are immediately shot and killed.  Yeah.  Killed.  King has a twisted mind.  He and Suzanne Collins should be friends.  The winner (a.k.a. last man walking) gets whatever he wants for the rest of his life.

King starts the book with the main character, Raymond Garraty, being dropped off at the US-Canadian border by his distraught mother.  There, he meets 99 other boys and they begin walking, monitored closely by a team of soldiers driving next to them.

At first, I felt certain King would end the walk partway through the book and either we would see life post-walk for the winner, or the whole tradition of the walk would be overthrown and we would see the rebellion (Katniss-style).  About three quarters of the way through, though, I realized there would be no outraged resistance and the book would encapsulate the walk, nothing more.

Kevin and I both were amazed that King kept the story interesting through the whole walk.  Really, the whole thing is a repetition of the same activities over and over.  Boys get tired. Boys talk. Boys fight. Boys die.  Yet, King keeps you engaged and invested through the whole story.  Each boy has his own story and you spend time "rooting" for different ones, only to have them die like 99% of their comrades.

It was almost more disturbing to listen to those deaths aloud than to read them. Nothing like driving along looking for somewhere to eat while you listen to a graphic description of a boy breaking down and getting shot. I found the whole thing pretty depressing.  I really could not imagine any sort of history in which we come to something like this.  It seemed improbably to me that these boys would volunteer to participate.  Maybe that just shows how little I really know about desperation or the psyche of a teenage boy.

I won't give away the ending.  If you know the ending, so much of the suspense of the book is gone. If you know which boys will make it and which will not, you would never become as invested as you need to be to bear the violence.

My only frustration, besides the excessive gore which I recognize was necessary in its own way, was the lack of setup for the walk.  I wanted far more WHY answers than King provided.  I wanted him to explain how the walk came into being and why the public accepted it, even celebrating it.  I wanted so many answers and he provided none.  In his defense, it is clear he did not set out to write a book about a fictional dystopian America.  He set out to write a book about characters and human endurance.  He nailed that.

My favorite part of the whole book was actually the introduction.  King wrote The Long Walk under a pen name, Richard Bachman.  Having been found out, King wrote a beautiful essay, "The Importance of Being Bachman," about why he wrote with a pen name and the life he imagined for this imaginary man. As a reader and writer, I so appreciated how he expressed his feelings on the topic.  As we listened to that introduction, I was mesmerized, despite Kevin's repeated questioning about when the real book was going to start.  If you ever get a chance, you can read the essay online.

I plan on reading more Stephen King work.  I do enjoy his writing. In the future, however, I may aim closer to the 11/22/63-type books in his career.  Then again, I still haven't read The Running Man, which King has argued was inspiration for Collins' Hunger Games series.  I think it's a good guess that it will be the next King novel to make an appearance here.

Pages: 370
Date Completed: October 12, 2013

What have you read by Stephen King?  What do you think about his work?  What is your favorite King novel?

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