Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Keep on keeping on

The irony of listening to this book while on a morning walk and then falling and breaking my ankle is not lost on me. I picked up Stephen King's (writing as Richard Bachman) The Long Walk sometime after taking my own long walk through Scotland this summer. I have never read anything by Stephen King (not a fan of horror), and this book seemed to be as far from horror as can be.

Boy, was I wrong! This book haunted me while I was listening, and continues to haunt me more than 10 days after finishing. I think it's both its plausibility and the story's implacability -- no explanation is offered for the American society that created the Walk and only the barest hints are provided about how people feel about it. I would turn on my mp3 player with dread, but then I couldn't turn it off. This reality is so much more horrifying than that involving things that go bump in the night.

The Long Walk is an annual competition open to 100 qualifying young men -- older teenagers. They start out at a northern point in the state of Maine and walk south. They must maintain a speed of four miles per hour. If they slow down or stop, they are given a warning by the military men who are tracking the walkers in vehicles. The walkers get three warnings per hour; the fourth is an assassination. The winner is the only young man left alive ... at whatever point the second-to-the-last competitor is killed. The winner gets whatever he wants for the rest of his life. It seems likely that that life won't be a long one as the winner probably descends into some kind of mental psychosis as he witnesses the killing of 99 peers.

The Long Walk is solely about this walk. The protagonist is Ray Garraty, "Maine's own" competitor. We learn that his father was taken away by the military a few years earlier for objecting to the Walk. We meet many of the other walkers, including Peter McVries, with whom Ray forms a kind of bond. Over the course of the novel's four (?) days, we learn a little bit about these young men, but it's all in terms of their physical and emotional suffering. The horror of their situation is unrelenting. The ending of the novel is not cathartic in any way. Is this some existential metaphor for life? I'm getting quivery insides just writing about it.

The book was published in 1979, under King's pseudonym, Richard Bachman. The audiobook begins with a somewhat lengthy explanation of why King created Bachman, which -- since I have no King experience -- was extraneous for me. I wonder if it might prove a barrier to a listener since it takes a good 10-15 minutes to get to the actual story. Kirby Heyborne narrates both the introduction and the novel itself. His soft voice and somewhat stoic reading affect are just about perfect for Ray's story. Ray doesn't get angry, he keeps his pain to himself, he connects with the other boys on the journey despite his need to remember that they will all be dead.

At one point in the novel, Ray's girlfriend and mother are supposed to be waiting for him by the side of the road. He struggles with whether they'll be there, whether they'll be able to speak to him, what their brief encounter will be like. For the listener (and for Ray), it is -- of course -- heart-wrenching. Heyborne ups his emotional ante with this section. Since Ray has maintained his calm up to this point, when his anxiety and distress emerge here, it's wrecking. I think at this point, I had to turn it off and take some deep breaths.

Heyborne is not my favorite narrator, although I have heard him fairly often (here, here, here, and here [hey, I used Audiobook Jukebox to find those links!]). This book seems to suit him the best, his reading style captures this book's emotional intensity in a contradictory way: By maintaining Ray's stoicism through Heyborne's soft and fairly lulling voice, the book becomes bearable.

For a much needed break for humor, here is the cover of the original (?) version of this novel, courtesy of King's website. Gotta love that cheesy 1970s graphic design. Here's a link to the book's many different covers.

I'm never reading another Stephen King novel. Never. Because of course, if I'd broken my ankle on the Long Walk, I'd be dead.

The Long Walk by Stephen King (writing as Richard Bachman)
Narrated by Kirby Heyborne
Penguin Audio, 2010. 10:46 (unabridged)

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