Sunday, January 24, 2010

Under The Dome: A Review

There's two thing that I've learned over the last couple years of reading Stephen King. The first is that Stephen King loves sprawling ensemble casts. He even mentions it in the afterword of his 2009 sprawling ensemble epic, Under the Dome. That 1100 page tome sports a cast of almost 30 major characters, outstripping his other 1200 page behemoth, The Stand. The other thing I've learned is that, as much as he loves these large cast grand epics, he has a tendency to biff these novels by relying on a less than satisfying deus ex machina to shake things up at the end. He is, as I can see, better suited to shorter novels (The Gunslinger, The Shining, Carrie, etc) and short stories. But in Under the Dome, King manages to use his weaknesses to his advantage, crafting a scathing commentary on small town life, politics and fear in a post 9/11 world.

It's mid-October in our favorite New England neck of the woods, not far from Castle Rock, and close enough to Shawshank that the fear of imprisonment hangs over one of the characters in the opening chapters. From the sky their drops down a (maybe inappropriately named) Dome around the town of Chester's Mill. A woodchuck is sheered in half, and an airplane is crushed like a fly on a windshield. The dome is completely invisible, save for where they townsfolk stain it with their fruitless attempts to flee, and polution coats it in a shroud of muck. The dome is also for the most part impermiable. The two-thousand-ish residents are trapped and left to their own devices.

Chester's Mill, like any good small town has its own self-important politics and politicos, and it also has its share of dark secrets. Its darkest of which is hidden in the christian radio station on the edge of town. And its this dark secret which might spell doom for the residents of Chester's Mill. The town also has its own demagogue who is both Dick Cheney and George Bush, who is a bit of Hitler, and a bit of Stalin, who is, as every good King villain is, charismatic, and utterly evil. Cut off from the rest of the world this villain, Jim Rennie, a used car salesman and town selectman, assumes slow power complete with his own burning of the Reichstag. And in true Stephen King form this town will be put through the ringer.

The lines get drawn, and for much of it, Under the Dome turns into a black and white battle of good versus evil. A battle which pit neighbors against neighbors, and family against each other, and for the lion's share of the novel, the dome itself takes a backseat to this gruesome small town showdown. And a warning for those approaching this novel expecting explicit explanations, you should know that in terms of story what you're getting yourself into is more Spielberg's War of the Worlds than Emmerich's Independence Day. These are normal folks caught up in a shitstorm, not scientists and soldiers fighting the good fight. This also isn't a bad thing.

Under The Dome takes its time, showing us the town and surrounding area, introducing us to the people that inhabit it, and putting us through the paces with them. The writing is always the breezy prose of Stephen King, never getting bogged down in thick prose, and always promising us a story. At this point King knows how to handle a large cast spread over a large area without losing the big picture and the geographical locations of all his characters. But King is not without his faults. Some of his descriptions almost too original that they illicit groans where awe should be. The sound of an explosion being described as "God's own vacuum sweeper" had me full of chuckles at the wrong time. And certain conclusions are more appropriate but less satisfying than they should be.

Those few minor complaints aside, Under The Dome is one of King's premier works. We are in the throes of a pulp god, and this is one creation of his that should not be missed.