The Hike is a weird book. A good book that I liked a lot, yes, but a weird, weird book, nonetheless.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Far from it. In fact, given what I knew and expected about the writing of Drew Magary going in, I would’ve been disappointed had The Hike been anything but the surreal and vulgar horror-trek that Magary presents.
The story is, more or less, a forward-momentum sandwich stuffed to the crust with… stuff. That’s probably the best way to describe it. Stuff. Scary stuff, funny stuff, emotional stuff. Lots of stuff, and in a relatively small package (just 278 pages in paperback).
Is it for everyone? Absolutely not. But it’s a quick read and worth a look if you’re in search of a fantastical, horror-filled folk tale that pushes its hero to and beyond the breaking point. Once finished, you’ll probably find yourself thinking about just what the heck it was you just experienced.
Again, it’s real weird. Let’s dig in.
DANGER, WILL ROBINSON! SPOILERS AHEAD!
The Hike is the story of a 38-year-old man named Ben who, while on a business trip to Pennsylvania, decides to take a hike in the woods and is magically transported from his hotel’s normal walking path to an alternate world that is decidedly not normal. It’s not explained how or why this happens, but once it does, Ben’s ordinary life is turned upside down and inside out in a multitude of horrible ways.
Gone is Ben’s wife, Teresa, and his three little children back in Maryland. So too, the hotel and surrounding woods. In their place, an unceasing procession of ridiculous characters, monsters, and obstacles designed to break Ben’s will. To destroy his soul. To kill him, if he’s not careful.
I’m talking murderers with rottweiler faces. A horse-sized cricket. A charming, yet cannibal giantess named Fermona who unsuccessfully tries to eat him. An evil demon named Voris with a collection of deadly servants like suffocating smoke monsters, skinless zombies, men with a hundred mouths, and spiders with human heads for bodies.
The allies Ben finds along his never-ending hike are the most memorable characters in the book. One, a foul-mouthed talking crab named, simply enough, Crab, is basically the story’s mascot. In the first half of the book, he helps a reeling Ben struggling to cope with his new reality and the loss of his family to keep pushing forward before returning later on in an unexpected way. The other, a fifteenth-century Spaniard named Cisco, is trapped on a hike of his own and shares in Ben’s Sisyphean toils at the deadly manipulation of Voris before the two break out in search of the mysterious Producer believed to be behind it all.
Underneath it all, the path. Always the path. If Ben leaves the path, he dies. So he pushes on. And on and on and on and on.
Over a decade passes. Ten years of magic beans, horrific monsters, and confusing flashbacks of key moments in Ben’s life that appear twisted from how they occurred in reality. Most poignantly, it’s ten full years of Ben’s depressing desperation to remember the wife and kids of his old life. After finally defeating Voris with the help of Cisco and Fermona, they escape and Ben is hit with the realization that his long-gone friend Crab was, in fact, Ben himself from the future after a crustacean mutation.
Ben parts with his dedicated Spanish partner and guides his younger self just as Crab once did for him. After being transformed back into his human form, he’s then given the option of being taken, at last, to the Producer (aboard a train that might take an infinite amount of years to reach its destination) or killing himself. He chooses the former and eventually deduces that he is actually the Producer and that almost everything he’s encountered along the path so far was created with the aid of his memories and subconscious.
Finally, Ben meets with a man named Bobby — I don’t know why, but I pictured Stan Lee — who says he’s the Executive Producer. He offers Ben another choice behind two doors: return to his old life as if nothing happened, but under the penalty of death if he ever speaks of his journey or return to another, different life in which he would basically be a god. But rather than make him choose, Magary has his protagonist do the strangest thing yet (which is saying something). Ben takes a penknife and bisects himself into two distinct people — Old, current Ben and Past, younger Ben. They each take a door and the reader follows Young Ben back to his old life where he reunites with Teresa and his children.
Of course, there’s a twist ending waiting for the reader. One that’s teased not only by the book cover itself, but by just about everyone who’s picked up and read the thing. As it turns out, Ben’s wife is implied to have also been sent on her own hike at some point in her past. Ben recognizes this and the two share an unspoken understanding of their shared misery, as looming death keeps either from sharing their ordeal with the other.
Some non-summary thoughts:
- The ending was good. I liked it. But it was hyped as this mind-bending final gut-punch, and, for whatever reason, it just didn’t hit me that way. Still, it’s pretty clever after looking back through the breadcrumbs left about Ben and Teresa’s relationship.
- Magary’s narrative style is pretty bare bones. All that stuff I mentioned before just kind of… happens. And it keeps happening, at a rapid pace, for the entire book. I haven’t really decided if I like it or not. It’s definitely a little unorthodox and probably a good sign that the author is a columnist-turned-novelist and not the other way around. Ben’s important backstory is sprinkled in through hallucinogenic flashbacks, but most of the text is just quest obstacle after quest obstacle. It can be tiring and makes it a little difficult for specific moments to reeky stand out in retrospect. Because of this, I had a distinct feeling of “Ok, so this is just happening now? We’re going with this?” until about a quarter of the way through the book. I could see how someone picking it up off the shelf with no prior knowledge of the story or author might be turned off.
- Is Ben the most unlikable character in the book? Maybe just the least memorable. He obviously has the motivation of getting to the end of the path and returning to his family, but even that felt pretty one-dimensional. Still, him finally going home provides satisfaction in a book I was pretty sure wouldn’t end happily, twist or not.
- It’s Drew Magary, so there’s plenty of swearing. It’s pretty funny. If you’ve read and like his work at Deadspin or GQ, you’ll feel right at home. If not, well, you’re given plenty of opportunity to acquire the taste.
- I liked The Hike enough that I’ll be picking up Magary’s first novel, The Postmortal, sooner or later.
GoodReads rating: ★★★★