One hundred boys start out on The Long Walk. Each must maintain a four-mile-an-hour pace. Fall below that and you get a warning. Three warnings. There is no fourth warning. Instead, you get a ticket. But, if after a warning you don't falter for an hour, it sluffs and resets to zero. They keep on walking until there's just one Walker left – the winner.
It's the national pastime, so they come from all over, the walkers do. Texas, New Hampshire, Maine, Louisiana, New Mexico, Washington DC, Illinois, Arizona, Mississippi, New Jersey. All competing for the big reward – "The Prize" and the money.
Six previous Long Walks crossed the Maine state line into New Hampshire, and one (only one) continued on into Massachusetts. Sixteen-year-old Raymond Garraty (#47) is determined to win this year. Other Mainers want him to win too, betting on him, taking 12-1 odds. It's a wagering race, like betting on a steeplechase where all the thoroughbreds save one bite the dust. In all, more than $2 billion is wagered on the Long Walk.
On and on and on they walk. To Limestone, Caribou, Oldtown, Freeport, Bangor, Augusta, Lewiston/Auburn, Freeport, Portland, the New Hampshire border, then on into Massachusetts, the first group of Walkers to accomplish that feat in 17 years.
The first to go down is a kid named Curley (#7), defeated by a persistent charley horse. So he gets his ticket, which is a euphemism for "they shoot him dead." Ewing (#9) is the next to falter, done in by blisters and "pus in his shoes." Then another, and another, and another. Garraty and his new-found friends – Peter McVries (#61), Hank Olson (#70) and Art Baker (#3) – simply stop keeping track.
A rich broth of memories, what- ifs and suppositions helps while away the mental monotony for the walkers, interrupted occasionally by tickets being meted out. Like Joe Bonham in Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun, or William Golding's Pincher Martin, they define themselves with their thoughts.
And how 'bout those helpful hints designed to keep them in the game? Hint 6: Slow and easy does it. Hint 13: Conserve energy whenever possible.
They talk to numb the aches and pains – about enemas, sex, drinking, farting, laxatives, girlfriends ... about dying. Like the prisoners in George Root's Civil War song, they march. Tramp, tramp, tramp.
What a story. What. A. Story.
Stephen King must drive stickler-English word merchants crazy. For me, it's his saying "which" when he should be saying "that," or "further" when he means "farther" (he does those so frequently that I now tend to overlook it).
Stephen King, writing as Richard Bachman
Penguin Books ($7.99 list)