- Under the Dome: A Novel
- Scribner, 1088 pp.
The King is Back
It’s an ordinary October day when something extraordinary happens in a small Maine town—an event that becomes known as “Dome Day”; an event that becomes a line of demarcation. There is “before” and there is “after” and it does not look like there will be a “happily ever after.” What causes this event is a lot less important than what happens to the citizens affected by it, and as ordinary people become villains or heroes or victims, we are caught up in the story as surely as if we had relatives living in Chester’s Mill.
It has been said before that Stephen King is the modern Charles Dickens and his latest book, Under the Dome, will add to that reputation. Like many of his works, Under the Dome is a story about a group of people cut off from the rest of the world and forced to shift for themselves in the face of hostile forces. Although the book is flawed by its ultimate revelation, the novel is a master’s class in character creation that offers a solid, satisfying read.
The overarching plot—what is the dome, who put it there, why did they put it here?—is intriguing enough, but King has layered that plot with various character-driven subplots that are completely absorbing. King has a fondness for working class heroes and the good guys here are ordinary people with ordinary lives—no supermodels or television anchors here.
King also admires women, particularly mothers, and there are numerous examples of maternal love here—from a white trash girl’s heart-breaking relationship with her little boy to a woman who takes on the role of surrogate mother when it’s pressed upon her. There’s Rose, who owns the diner that is the emotional center of the town and Brenda, widowed when her husband’s heart literally explodes from proximity to the dome. They’re among the first to stand up when the town’s leading citizen, Big Jim Rennie, orchestrates a power grab with the help of his weak-willed crony, the Chief of Police.
King has written often and movingly about his own mother, of her hard-scrabble existence and her love for him and his brother. He’s distilled that love into almost every mother he’s ever written about—except perhaps for Carrie’s nutball mom. Read Bag of Bones if you’re skeptical, or even Cujo, where his understanding of a woman’s side of a troubled marriage gave emotional weight to what could have been just another shaggy dog story.
Redemption is a theme King returns to often as well, and this book lays it on the line like an old-time gospel hymn—“Who you gonna turn to, o sinner man, all on that day?” Dome Day is an apocalyptic event and there are those in town—particularly a tweaker named Chef, who believe it’s a sign of God’s wrath and aren’t too shy about doing the devil’s work in the Lord’s name. King doesn’t have much good to say about organized religion here and Chef may remind some readers of Randall Flagg’s deranged follower “the Trashcan Man” in The Stand.
The townsfolk of Chester’s Mill have tough choices to make as their situation deteriorates and under the dome, there is no place to hide, no room to equivocate. The subplot involving the psychotic unraveling of Jim’s son Junior reminds us of the “hide-in-plain-sight” serial killer from King’s The Dead Zone, and is beautifully orchestrated. In fact, the dysfunctional father/son dynamic going on fuels a lot of the action and is powerful enough to have been its own book but King has super-sized his plot here and given us a lot more.
Big Jim’s loathing of the story’s hero, a war veteran-turned-transient fry cook builds naturally into a confrontation that is intense without being melodramatic. Weaving through the narrative is a strong indictment of what happens when people are bullied into giving up their civil rights in the name of safety, a theme as timely now in the post 9/11 world as it was when Benjamin Franklin warned the citizens of a new nation about those who would wrap their ulterior motives in flags and false promises.
King is a fan of the late, great Rod Serling and some of what happens in the town here mirrors classic Twilight Zone episodes like the politically charged “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street.” (If you’ve never seen it, hunt it down on YouTube.) You will be reminded that “the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.”
This is a hefty book and some subplots could have been eliminated—a thread involving two visiting “Massholes,” for example, or another one involving a young mother and her son, Little Walter. It would have been a shame to lose them, though, or the various messages the subplots carry.
The underlying eco-theme is a plea to take care of the earth and King has thrown in a couple of truly stunning visuals to bring home his points. Just as pollution causes California’s beautiful sunsets, the pollution inside the dome distorts the color of everything outside, including some meteor showers the townsfolk experience as eerie showers of pink sparks that leave contrails.
We care about these people and want to know who is going to survive. (And just because we like them does not mean their survival is a done deal because King doesn’t always give his readers happy endings.) And about that ending…
After all that our characters experience; after all the tribulations (and yes, we mean that in the religious sense) that occur; the ending is a bit disappointing. The gimmick just doesn’t pay off with the kind of resonance the book’s epic length and monumental plotting require. Readers who have accompanied the characters on their journey will be satisfied by what happens to the good and bad guys, but the plot’s disconcertingly abrupt conclusion may jar.
Still, despite the ending, this is King’s best work in years, a richly textured novel of people under pressure that will move readers and provoke them and make them want to tell their friends. Forget Blaze and Duma Key, the King is back. Long live the King.