BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A transparent dome materializes around the town of Chester’s Mill allowing one of the local politicians to make a power-grab.
PROS: Completely engrossing and often page-turning; excellent characterizations; reads fast; deals with relevant issues.
CONS: I’m hard-pressed to name a single gripe with this novel.
BOTTOM LINE: I cannot image a better reading experience.
There’s a point in Stephen King’s new 1,080-page novel Under the Dome where one of the many characters — contemplating the life plans she had before she was trapped in the small town that has been inexplicably covered by a huge, transparent dome — expresses the desire to be a writer. She deems it as risky, because what if you “wrote a thousand-pager, and it sucked?” If King had been echoing his internal fears while writing this, he can rest easy by my reckoning. Under the Dome is easily one of the best reading experiences I’ve had this year.
The short, elevator-pitch summary of the plot is that a transparent dome suddenly materializes around the border of Chester’s Mill, Maine, allowing one of the local politicians — Second Selectman “Big” Jim Rennie – to make a power-grab.
There is, of course, lots more going on; the cast of characters is fairly large and they each have their own personal dramas and back stories. Driving the plot is the story line of the main antagonist, “Big” Jim Rennie. He’s a car salesman who also serves as the town’s power-hungry Second Selectman. While this may seem like it’s not a position of power, it’s a carefully calculated maneuver to have a fall guy (the First Selectman, the weak-willed Andy Sanders). And it’s not just the desire for power that drives him, he’s already got his hands in some shady dealings. Big Jim is an excellent villain: loved by those he successfully manipulates, hated by those he mercilessly targets, and feared by all. Assisted by his deranged son Junior and a handful of dirty cops, Big Jim uses the Dome as an excuse to rule with an increasingly iron fist. One of their main targets is Dale Barbara (“Barbie” to friends, “Baaaarbie” to his taunting enemies), an ex-military man who is just looking for the simple life of a short-order cook until the dome interrupts his plans. He’s asked to assume the role of the town’s leader by those outside the dome while they figure out what’s happened. This does not sit well with Big Jim, and the dome gives him leverage (that he would otherwise not have) to ignore the voice of authority. Mixed into this power struggle are many others, most notably: Duke Perkins, the level-headed Chief of Police; Rusty Everett, the physician’s assistant; and Julia Shumway, Owner/Editor of the local newspaper.
Again, it’s a large cast. But King’s characterizations and depiction of small town America are so well handled that you feel a sense of coziness. The people are as familiar as your own neighbors and are so well drawn as to seem real. This, in turn, makes the plot — which includes drugs, murder, betrayals, and intrigue — that much more engrossing. King’s at the top of his game here, with smooth, swift-moving prose and a plot that won’t stop twisting and surprising.
As Big Jim might tell one of his prospective customers…”But wait! There’s more!” If Under the Dome worked on that pure entertainment level alone, it would merely be a good book. What makes it surpass into the territory of excellence is how it eerily captures the post-9/11 political climate and maps it to the goings-on of Chester’s Mill. King’s characters must deal with issues violated civil liberties, the treatment of prisoners, and the forgoing of due process and accountability, for example. This easily could have been an excruciating polemic of real world issues, but any heavy-handedness is precluded by the author’s expert storytelling and world building prowess.
With all of the goings-on inside the dome, one might wonder about the dome itself. Where did it come from? How is it generated? The technology behind the dome, while ultimately science fictional, is really just a lot of hand-waving on the part of the author. This is not necessarily a bad thing as the dome more than serves its dual purpose with regards to the plot: First, it’s a metaphor for isolation. The events of the book cannot happen without it. It gives Big Jim license to do as he pleases without answering to the higher authority that cannot penetrate the dome. Second, it is a source of fear. It is this fear that initially gives Big Jim the support from the townspeople. This is, of course, analogous to the government using fears of terrorism to bypass due process. In Chester’s Mill, Big Jim, instead of bringing the townspeople together, cultivates the notion of “us vs. them” — even going so far as to call Barbie and his friends “terrorists”. It’s a powerful metaphor and it works marvelously.
Under the Dome thus works on two levels: as a dramatic, page-turning story about realistic people and as commentary on the recent political climate. It’s both entertaining and relevant. For this reason, Under the Dome offers an outstanding reading experience and is highly recommended.