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?
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.
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.
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.