The Long Walk is a dystopian novel concerning Ray Garraty, a sixteen-year-old who is participating in American's new pastime: the Long Walk. The rules are simple-each Walker must walk at a pace of no less than four miles an hour. If they slow down, they pay with their life. Garraty must keep walking if he wants to win, and he does want to win; however, what he didn't anticipate was making friends on the Long Walk. This novel examines themes of fascism, existence, and death.
One hundred teenage boys participate in an annual walking contest called "The Long Walk" or just "The Walk". Each contestant, called a "Walker", must maintain a speed of at least four miles per hour; if he drops below that speed for 30 seconds, he receives a verbal warning. A Walker who slows down again after receiving three warnings is "ticketed". The meaning of this action is intentionally kept vague at first, but it soon becomes clear that "buying a ticket" means to be shot dead by soldiers riding in half-tracks along the roadside. Walkers may be shot immediately for certain serious violations, such as trying to leave the road or attacking the half-track, and are given warnings for minor violations such as interfering with one another. The soldiers use electronic equipment to precisely determine a Walker's speed. A Walker clears one warning for every hour that he stays above the minimum speed.
The event is run by a character known as "The Major". The Major appears at the beginning of the Walk to encourage the boys and start them on their way, and then occasionally thereafter. While the Walkers initially greet him with awe and respect, they ridicule him in later appearances.
The Walk begins at the Maine/Canada border at 9:00 on the morning of May 1 and travels down the East Coast of the United States until the winner is determined. There are no stops, rest periods, or established finish line, and the Walk does not pause for any reason (including bad weather or darkness); it ends only when one last Walker is left alive. According to the rules, the Walkers can obtain aid only from the soldiers, who distribute canteens of water and belts packed with food concentrates (apparently similar to the ones developed by NASA's space program) just before the Walk begins. They may request a fresh canteen at any time, and new food supplies are distributed at 9:00 every morning. Walkers may bring anything they can carry, including food or additional clothing, but cannot receive aid from bystanders. They are allowed to have bodily contact with onlookers as long as they stay on the road. While they cannot physically interfere with one another to detrimental effect, they can help each other, provided they stay above four miles per hour.
The winner receives "The Prize": anything he wants for the rest of his life.
It is implied that many past winners have died soon after the Walk, due to its hazardous mental and physical challenges. The Long Walk is not only a physical trial, but a psychological one, as the Walkers are continually pressed against the idea of death and their own mortality. One contestant from past years is described as having actually crawled at four miles per hour after suffering cramps in both feet. Several characters suffer mental breakdowns, one of them killing himself by tearing out his throat, and most characters experience some mental degeneration from the stress and lack of sleep.
The protagonist of the novel is Raymond Davis Garraty, a 16-year-old boy from the town of Pownal in Androscoggin County, Maine. Early on, he falls in with several other boys— including Peter McVries, Arthur Baker, Hank Olson, Collie Parker, Pearson, Harkness, and Abraham — who refer to themselves as "The Musketeers". Another Walker, Gary Barkovitch, quickly establishes himself as an external antagonist, as he quickly angers his fellow walkers with multiple taunts of "dancing on their graves". This results in the death of a fellow Walker, Rank, who is ticketed after repeatedly trying to assault Barkovitch. Lastly, the most alluring and mysterious Walker is a boy named Stebbins. Throughout the Walk, Stebbins establishes himself as a loner, observing the groundbeneath him as he listens to fellow Walkers' complaints, seemingly unaffected by the mental and physical strains. The only character Stebbins truly interacts with is Garraty. In one conversation, Garraty alludes to Alice in Wonderland , likening Stebbins to the Caterpillar. Stebbins, however, corrects him: he believes himself to be more of a White Rabbit type.
Along the road, the Walkers learn that one of their number, Scramm— initially the heavy odds-on favorite to win the Walk — is married. When Scramm gets pneumonia, the remaining Walkers agree that the winner will use some of the Prize to take care of his pregnant widow, Cathy.
Members of the public interfering with the Walkers can receive an "interference" ticket. This nearly occurs when the mother of a Walker named Percy tries, on several occasions, to get onto the road and find her son (at her last attempt, he has already been killed for attempting to sneak away). Only the intervention of the local police keeps her from being executed. The second instance is when a spectator's dog runs across the road in front of the Walkers and is shot. However, one man is able to throw the Walkers watermelon slices before being hauled away by the police rather than the soldiers; several Walkers receive third warnings after taking the watermelon, but none of them are shot.
Garraty becomes closest to McVries, a boy with a prominent facial scar who speculates that his own reason for joining the Walk is a subconscious death wish. When Garraty suffers a short mental breakdown following the death of one of his friends, McVries takes several warnings in order to get him moving again.
By the evening of the fifth day, the Walk has progressed into Massachusetts, the first time in 17 years that it has done so. There are only nine Walkers left. Earlier, Stebbins revealed to Garraty and McVries that he is the illegitimate son of the Major. Stebbins states he used to think the Major was unaware of his existence, but it turns out that the Major has numerous illegitimate children nationwide. Four years earlier, the Major took Stebbins to the finish of a Long Walk; now Stebbins feels that the Major has set him up to be "the rabbit", motivating others to walk farther to prolong the race, just as rabbits are used in dog races. Stebbins' plan, upon winning the Walk, is to ask to be "taken into [his] father's house" as his Prize. McVries is shot by the soldiers when he sits down, resigning to his fate, but not before smiling at Garraty. Finally, Garraty decides to give up after realizing that Stebbins has shown almost no weaknesses over the duration of the Walk. Garraty catches up with Stebbins to tell him this, but before he can speak, Stebbins collapses and dies; thus Garraty is declared the winner.
Unaware of the celebration going on around him, Garraty gets up from Stebbins' side and keeps on walking, believing the race to still continue, as he hallucinates a dark figure not far ahead that he thinks is another competitor. He ignores a jeep coming towards him in which the Major comes to award him the victory, thinking it is a trespassing vehicle. When a hand touches his shoulder, Garraty somehow finds the strength to run.