Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Whole Book about Walking – The Long Walk

In some ways Stephen King is a polarizing figure among book readers and writers. Some feel he is completely commercial and writes to please the masses. Others find his work to be among the best of modern storytelling. I dislike extremes, but I have to admit, Stephen King is a very good writer. Nearly every book I’ve read by him, I’ve enjoyed on some level. Some of them are better than others, but most of them keep you reading until the end.

While King is known for his horror work, he’s written plenty of other things. Some of the best adaptation of King’s work to screen come from his non-horror offerings: “Stand by Me” (based of “The Body”), “The Shawshank Redemption”, and “The Green Mile”. In fact one of the books I recommend to King neophytes is “Different Seasons” a combination of four short stories that don’t really have much to do with the supernatural.

My sister recommended “The Long Walk” to me, saying it was another one of King’s different tales. I knew little about it, other than it was written by King when he was using the Richard Bachman pseudonym. The introduction to the book explains King’s view of Bachman and about the alter ego’s untimely death. King says of Bachman “…he’s not a very nice guy.”

What is very interesting about this book is that it shouldn’t work. It has two things going against it. First off, it’s bleak. There is very little humor here and what there is black as the depths of space and nearly as cold. The setting is harsh, grim future – a true dystopia. The tone is hard and unforgiving and it doesn’t let up, not even at the end.

The second strike against it is the subject matter. The basic plot is a publicized game. It seems to be the only game in this future U.S. One hundred teenage boys start walking from a point in Maine heading south. They can not stop, they can not drop below four miles per hour. If they do either, they are warned. After three warnings they are shot. The winner of the game is awarded a fabulous prize. All you have to do is survive.

That’s it. You start off with the main character and follow him all the way through The Long Walk until his end. There is nothing else going on, you don’t get to see anything outside of what the main character experiences, and so you don’t get much background as to why the game was created, how it is promoted and televised, and why anyone would want to participate in such a thing in the first place. You only know that it’s happening and that you are trapped with the main character as it happens.

The thing is, the book works very well. There are two key reasons for this. For me the most important element is the set up. If the first couple chapters don’t grab the reader then they are not going to stay with the book for the long haul. King creates an interesting character with Garraty Davis. He’s someone we can all relate to in a way. If you’ve ever been a teenager then you understand some of what Garraty is going though. You wanna seem smarter than you are. You feel invincible one level and very self conscious on another. You do things on impulse with much though for future consequences. You have something to prove but don’t know what it might be or who you want to prove it to. In a way he reminds me of some of the better drawn teen protagonists of Japanese animation or video games.

Most readers will understand Garraty and as King slowly feeds you more information about the game and what’s happening, your curiosity grows. Garraty obviously knows some things, but his mind isn’t focused on them, instead elements of the game and the dystopian future come out in conversation and internal monologue.

This is the second key to the book. There are elements that are hinted at from the beginning. Why is Garraty involved in the Long Walk? Who is “The Major” and why is he in charge of The Long Walk? Why do some of the boys act the way they do? Each of these points perks your interest and keeps you reading. Garraty finds some of these answers, the readers may have to glean others from Garraty’s reactions and dialogue. Some are never fully revealed. Then of course there are other questions that arise as the book unfolds.

King handles it all very well, and kept me reading even when I questioning the point of the book. It’s so grim and dower, and yet there was something going on at its core, a cold nugget of truth that seemed to elude me. The book made me think, and for most of us writers, if you can get your readers to interact with the book and think about after they’ve shut it – you’ve succeeded. I definitely recommend this for anyone in the mood for something a little different from King, and not afraid to take The Long Walk.

What did you think of “The Long Walk”? You think King is over-rated? Ever read a book that didn’t seem like it should work but because of the writer’s skill, it did?

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