Under the Dome
This story of a Maine town trapped under a dome shows Stephen King at the height of his powers.
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Throw in an aging professor and his young lover, instantly orphaned kids, small-town snoops, cranks, kooks, addicts, optimists, shady capitalists, and a conspiracy theorist or two and – poof! – watch the propane find a perfect match to send society up in flames.Skip to next paragraph
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In a matter of days, the environmental reality sets in, too. Fall in Maine means crisp temperatures, but under the dome it feels like an endless Indian summer. Forget famed foliage in Chester’s Mill. Instead, the leaves go limp and brown. Streams dry up, animals turn suicidal, and pollution clings to the dome, giving the sky and stars an eerie hue that leaves everyone unsettled.
Then, too, there is the pop-culture environment, the one King has long conjured in his stories to hammer home the sense of ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Throughout his career – and long after he became a millionaire many times over – King has retained a dead-on sense for summing up how Americans think and live. (There’s a reason Entertainment Weekly tapped him as a regular columnist several years ago.) Here he’s at it again, with references to Wolf Blitzer and Anderson Cooper as they give CNN’s version of the dome story to the rest of the world. The citizens of Chester’s Mill drive Honda Odysseys and Toyota Priuses, they read Nora Roberts and they name-drop Homer Simpson. Ad jingles and Red Sox victories run through their heads even as bizarre, terrifying circumstances rain down.
Midway through the novel, Rennie, turned homicidal in pursuit of ultimate civic authority, reflects “on murder’s similarity to Lay’s potato chips: it’s hard to stop with just one.” There’s even a nice bit of metafiction as Lee Child’s thriller hero Jack Reacher lands a cameo.
Count Shirley Hazzard among the many who have sniffed at King for putting a premium on entertainment at the expense of literature. It’s a tired debate that’s gone on for several decades, and debates over the definition of literature are inherently dull and pointless anyway. Better to say that few can match King when it comes to capturing the American mood. Minus the pretension and navel-gazing, thank you very much, Mr. King.
With this novel, he somehow manages to keep the flab out of a book suitable for stopping the door of an airplane hangar. And it closes with a grim aftermath that makes the breakdown of society almost quaint by comparison.
As the final page declares, King wrote “Under the Dome” in 16 months. In the afterword, he thanks his wife and editors for helping him pare the novel down to a more digestible size. Translation: This monster was written in a fury.
It’s a fun and clear-headed fury, though. This is King humming at the height of his powers, cackling at human folly, taking childish glee in the gross-out and all the while spinning a modern fable that asks some serious questions without sounding preachy. If the fury left a few excessive typos and a dog’s name that mistakenly changes on occasion, well, these are (mostly) forgivable sins. After all, few of us can resist such nightmares and dreamscapes.
Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.