Reading Stephen King’s latest novel, Under The Dome, is a lot like running a marathon. The experience is enjoyable, you’re glad you finished it, and it’s exhausting. Just holding this 1,072 page doorstop of a book is enough to get your arm muscles nicely toned.
As usual, the setting is small town Maine. His old standbys of Castle Rock and Derry have been replaced with Chester’s Mill, but it’s indistinguishable from any other small town in Stephen King’s Maine. What separates Chester’s Mill from all the other towns is an invisible dome that conforms perfectly to the surveyed margins of the town. This dome descends so suddenly that a small plane is suddenly sliced in two, creating the first casualties. Trucks and cars on the road out of and into town slam into the invisible barrier, people walking suddenly end up with broken noses. Worse, there seems to be some sort of energy field near the barrier that causes electronic devices with batteries to explode if they get too close, as the town’s chief law enforcement officer discovers when the pacemaker in his heart explodes out of his chest, killing him instantly. It is this death that allows much of what happens afterwards to proceed, as there is now a vacuum of leadership at the law enforcement level, a vacuum that is immediately filled by the town’s Second Selectman, the corrupt and murderous Big Jim Rennie.
Stephen King novels succeed or fail largely based on the caliber of the villain. The malevolent spirits in The Shining, the vampires in ‘Salem’s Lot, the shape-shifting demon Randall Flagg who pops up in several books but most famously in The Stand, Pennywise the Clown in It, and even the rabid St. Barnard in Cujo all made excellent villains and excellent novels. Conversely, the already dead aliens in The Tommyknockers, the pawn shop evil guy in Needful Things, the abusive husband in Dolores Claiborne, and the evil government agents of Firestarter were pretty lame, and the novels were equally bad. Add Big Jim Rennie to the latter category, but make him the exception that proves the rule.
Stephen King has always been a liberal or left-of-center guy, but he was always more interested in scaring you or giving you a good story than he was in beating you over the head with a political message. His one previous overtly political book, the anti-nuclear power novel The Tommyknockers is possibly the worst novel of his career, a novel so spectacularly uninteresting that it was barely readable. True, almost all of his novels have had a few political asides thrown in, and there was little doubt about which side of the political spectrum his heroes inhabited, but the sort of political hectoring that is found in Under The Dome is rare in King’s canon.
Maybe the eight years of the Bush presidency were simply too much for King, because Under The Dome‘s villains are devoutly Republican evangelical Christians who murder, rape, and operate the nation’s largest methamphetamine lab while quoting the Bible and racistly raging against the black man with the terrorist middle name who sits in the Oval Office. In case you don’t get the point, Big Jim Rennie even has a picture of himself with Sarah Palin prominently displayed on his desk. I have almost no doubt that King’s model for Rennie was some leftist cartoon version of Dick Cheney, right down to the heart condition.
For the hero of the novel, King writes the tale of Dale Barbara, a serviceman who is making his way through the world trying to rid himself of the terrible memories of torture and murder he witnessed American servicemen performing on innocent Iraqis in Fallujah. Iraqis who carried pictures of themselves with their wives and children, just to underscore that they were decent family men and not IED-planting bombers…not that it made any difference to those cruel American soliders who wantonly tortured and murdered them. Oh, buh-rother…can I get some cheese to go with that ham?
The other heroes include a minister who no longer believes in God, an older professor whose gray ponytail lets you know that he’s a Sixties type of guy, and the Republican editor of the local newspaper (helpfully called the Democrat). Fear not, though…whenever the editor speaks out for doing the right thing, or speaks against the corruption of Jim Rennie, or disapproves of the brown-shirt tactics of the newly recruited police force Dale tells her that she “doesn’t sound like a Republican.” Because, you know, Republicans are all in favor of murder, staged riots, brown shirt police force tactics, and corrupt politicians. Well, at least in Stephen King’s world.
The problem with Big Jim Rennie is not that he is insufficiently evil. He’s incredibly evil. The problem is that he’s a Left-wing cartoon of a Christian conservative, and he’s about as believable as Roger Rabbit. In fact, the small town of Chester’s Mill is actually a hotbed of sociopathic miscreants. Who could know that in a town of about 2000 people in Maine you would find so many people willing to murder, rape, and commit arson on the command of an overweight selectman with a bad ticker? And not only is Rennie the power behind the local government, he’s also the main operator of one of the largest meth labs in the entire nation, presided over by a strung out tweaker who…wait for it…runs the Christian music radio station where the meth lab is hidden and who also quotes the Bible in between pipe hits.
The Dome itself is almost secondary in the novel. It’s really just a device that allows this parable of how fascism can be generated by a crisis (if you’re thinking about Bush and 9/11 right now, you must have read the book). The resolution of The Dome is oddly perfunctory. The ending seems almost as if King was running out of typing paper and needed to wrap it up quickly. SPOILER: The Dome is generated by a device implanted by alien children who seem to be playing a game with the inhabitants of the town, similar to how young children will turn the sun’s rays against an ant hill with a magnifying glass. After attempts are made to breach the Dome from the outside with bullets, acid, and even a Cruise missile, the editor of the newspaper comes up with a brilliant idea. She simply begs the alien children to stop, and they say okay. The end.
Unfortunately, almost everyone in the town is dead by this point, courtesy of a massive fireball that was set off when the huge propane tanks fueling the meth lab were blown up. The fireball scorches everything in its way and leaves the air under the dome largely unbreathable. Of course, Jim Rennie escapes the fireball but dies choking on bad air and clutching his heart after being visited by the spirits of those people he killed. You can almost see King sitting at his computer, fingers flying over the keyboard, saying, “Yeah! Take that, Cheney!”
King fundamentally misunderstands the nature of fascism on a conscious level, but on an unconscious level, perhaps even King gets it. Jim Rennie seeks power with an undying thirst, but he explains to one of his henchmen that he seeks power in order to help the people. “Our job, Carter, is to take care of them. We may not like it, we may not always think they’re worth it, but it’s the job God gave us.” Frankly, this is close to the motivation behind every politician who feels that he or she knows better how to spend our money and legislate our lives than it does those who want a smaller, more limited government. Rennie is not speaking of the downtrodden or disenfranchised, he’s speaking of the entire town population. Indeed, his entire mission throughout the book is to immanentize the eschaton, and just like every other totalitarian in history, he seeks his own unique brand of perfection.
Further undermining the novel is the speed with which events take place. Chester’s Mill is a quiet suburban town where the people live their normal lives. Then the Dome comes down and the town devolves into a fascist dictatorship within the span of one week. Rennie’s actions to assume total control begin within hours of the Dome’s arrival, as if he never even considered that the Dome might disappear and he would be held to account for what he does. The townspeople, flush with plenty of food in the store, cell phone service, internet service and even electrical power in homes that have generators (not uncommon in the brutal winters of Maine), become a rioting mob within days. Apparently King’s lack of faith in human nature isn’t limited to Republicans. Far from calamity bringing people together, as 9/11 showed, King seems to believe that we’re one invisible wall and a few hours away from tossing aside hundreds of years of the Rule of Law.
Despite all of these criticisms, Under The Dome is actually a very enjoyable novel. It moves briskly, the plot is interesting, the protagonists are likable, and the villains, while not believable, are at least sufficiently rotten. The politics of the book are ham-fisted and clunky, and the resolution of the plot is lame…over a thousand pages into this thing and they simply ask the aliens to stop? And they do? But it’s a diverting page-turner, and King is a much better writer than most of the people out there plowing the same field.