Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun: Mao’s famous quote is the message of Under the Dome, I think, and it examines both the possession and absence of that power in ferocious detail.
Thus far Curt and I are the only ones to finish one of the biggest of Stephen King’s doorstoppers, ands I’m sure he’s all snarky now ’cause I beat him to the review (on the other hand…maybe not: when the Hippie is working up on the Ardberg Problem and getting more whiskies to taste, it’s tough to make him pay attention).
To summarize the Tome of the Dome, here it is: an impenetrable, invisible barrier suddenly rises to surround a small Maine town (shades of the Simpsons Movie!), and the novel charts the course of the dissolution of small town America into chaos. Battle lines are drawn, good guys and bad guys identified, and around it all coils the mystery of where the Dome originated (or who made it happen), and the efforts of the outside world to penetrate it or break it. Big Jim Rennie, a hissable bad guy most will love to hate (and one of the great villains in modern fiction in the opinion of this writer) in a surprisingly short time takes the reins of power in his hands, orchestrates riots, embryonic death squads, and in him you see Hitler, Pol Pot, and maybe even Dick Cheney. Opposing him his a former Iraqi war veteran called Dale Barbera, who was a short order cook and was leaving town as the Dome came down and then….
I don’t want to go into too many details here (that would, to some extent, be futile and in any case be a spoiler): this review is less of a discussion of the plot than that of the writing and the author itself. Stephen King notes in his usual commentary to his readers that he had this idea many years ago (in 1976), but it was so large a canvas that he scurried away crying to his mommy until now. Reading it, you can understand why: the events of this 1000+ page novel are those of five days, and with a cast of (literally) a hundred or more.
As with all of King’s later work, there is an incredible attention to detail (his hallmark, one might say, and one of the reasons why it is so long). Events are meticulously plotted and there is liberal use of foreshadowing: King does not cheat or resort to a Deus ex Machina to get his heroes out of the jam they are in. Characters are described in rich and vivid language, have complex inner lives, and while the two main protagonists are Good and Evil, most of the rest fall – as they should – on varying shades of gray. Good guys make mistakes and have strokes of luck, bad guys have ruthless ambition and screw up, but none act against their natures. And it is a mark of the strength of King’s writing that one feels pity for Junior Rennie, and even Carter (at the end), among others.
As I read and listened to the book (I have both paper and CD versions), I was surprised how many references it contained, how many nods to other things. Consider: Big Jim is clearly a reference to Dick Cheney, down to his always taking the second banana post in order to have a fool (Andy: “you’re doing a heck of a job”…sound familiar?) take the heat; the way kids are central to unravelling the mystery of the Dome could be lifted from “It”; the apocalyptic ending – “Tommyknockers” and “It”; the unravelling of civilization when cut off from the outside: “Lord of the Flies” (given that King originally called this “The Cannibals” he might have taken his inspiration directly from there); the rise of the ordinary folks to greatness in resisting evil is a motif in much of King’s work, from “The Stand” to “Needful things”; and, as always, the slight dusting of mysticism (in this case, precognition), the apocalypse and T.S. Eliot. Mind you, I sort of looked for some reference to the Gunslinger cycle, but alas, was disappointed.
For my money, one the most powerful themes of the novel is the way Big Jim deliberately instigates and fosters a breakdown in law an order, brings fear to the fore, so he can set up his Brownshirts (oddly, a secret police and informers were not part of the book, and these are things no self-respecting dictator can be without, but I’ll pass on that). It uncannily mirrors Michael Crichton’s book “State of Fear” where people are deliberately kept scared so as to allow them to be duped and controlled and has admittedly become somethig of my own cynical worldview. And parallel to that is the reminder of how fascism and dictatorships must always be fought by right minded folks.
I also liked the richness of detail in town life – King is always good at this. Secondary characters are, as usual, more interesting than the hero: Julia Shumway, newspaper editor; the three kids (who are subtly drawn like the [real] Three Musketeers]; Piper Libby; The First Selectman, and the Third; Rusty and his policeman wife; Thurston Marshall ands his girlfriend, and the two kids they are saddled with…and so on. The climate detail and how the gradually darkening Dome mirrored the threatening apocalypse was also good, and lent a real sense of verisimilitude to the whole experience.
If I have a complaint or two about the book (I’ll pass on his B-movie pulp-fictioneque prose, since I recognize it but also don’t mind it) it’s these: surely a better explanation could have been found for the Dome itself (I’ll leave you to discover what it is); Rennie moved on too easily – you really wanted the bastard to have a long and leisurely death scene so that he could pay for his sins, but no….And the final scenes where everything comes to a head seem to be a little too facile. My opinion. On the whole, I enjoyed reading the book, and while it may not rank among King’s best, it sure isn’t bottom drawer.
Against all that we have a stirring story of people under pressure, a warning of how easily power can be usurped by the ruthless from the unwary, the politics of fear, a crackerjack mystery, human interrelationships, emotional trainwrecks and real pathos, the usual gruesome deaths and memorable knifings, shootings and killings all lovingly described with a fetishist’s care; and finally, the stern moral that we are all in this together and need each other, and maybe, just maybe, the guy who ends up as a doctor looking after us will be a sixty-year old ex-hippie who once was an editor of Ploughshares.
Sounds pretty much like the way things could really happen, to me.