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Under the Dome

This story of a Maine town trapped under a dome shows Stephen King at the height of his powers.

By Erik Spanberg / November 17, 2009



Running through Stephen King’s 1,100-page domesday novel – and you will run through it – one of your first thoughts will be: That didn’t feel like an 1,100-page novel. And, really, can there be a higher compliment for a novelist?

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The most immediate comparison for Under the Dome among King’s prodigious 40-plus titles is “The Stand,” an epic account of a killer virus. This time around, ever au courant, King summons up a malicious medley of contemporary horrors: ecological disaster, religious fundamentalism, government corruption, clueless citizenry, and, most chilling of all, civil liberties quashed by fear.

For those living under, well, a dome of late, the novel works from a simple premise: What if a small town found itself cut off from the rest of the world by a clear, impenetrable roof? At first blush, it feels like a dated sci-fi notion. Early chapters almost have a slapstick feel as a private plane crashes into the suddenly arrived barrier and a woodchuck is cut in half just as the dome envelops Chester’s Mill, Maine, and slides deep into the earth.

These early pages flutter by in breezy fashion, despite some grim proceedings. A classic King passage describes the fallout from the plane crash. “It also rained body parts,” he writes. “A smoking forearm ... landed with a thump beside the neatly divided woodchuck.” Cars crash into the unforgiving dome, taking lives and scaring survivors. A humming force field at its edge blows pacemakers to pieces, silences iPods, and shutters cameras.
King assembles a sprawling cast, sprinkling in all of the good and bad of any 21st-century American town. Here is a demagogue pulling the town’s strings with a blend of self-righteousness and corruption, there is an addled pharmacist who never bothers to question anything. OxyContin and crystal meth rear their ugly heads, but so, too, do ingenuity and compassion.

Secrets of sins big and small color everyone’s behavior, invariably serving to tip matters closer to chaos.

As King begins to set his cast in motion, the darkness descends, literally and figuratively. In the tidy span of a week, civilization’s thin veneer goes up in flames. Most terrifying, it’s what the people of the town do to one another that leads to the subsequent mayhem and horror.

As in “The Stand,” King’s new novel breaks society down into two sides. Most people fall into the care of Big Jim Rennie, the town’s second selectman and first finagler. Rennie collects favors and debts the way LeBron James collects slam dunks: without peer. He’s raided the tax coffers, established a mammoth drug-running operation and, as the dome casts aside the outside world, establishes a police state that would make Pol Pot envious.

Rennie smashes justice and burns down the town newspaper. He instigates rationing and food riots alike, aided by the greedy depravity of a few violent teenagers and the unthinking complicity of most of his constituents.

Opposing Rennie and his ever-expanding team of thugs is an island of misfit toys led by a disillusioned Iraq war veteran-turned-short-order cook named Dale Barbara. He’s joined by the victimized newspaper publisher, a minister wrestling with her faith, three perceptive teenagers, and the police chief’s widow, among others.

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