Under the Dome by Stephen King

Under the Dome: A Novel BY Stephen King. Scribner. Hardcover, 1088 pages. $35.
The cover of Under the Dome: A Novel

The premise of Under the Dome is very simple: an invisible and impenetrable barrier of unknown provenance envelops the small Maine town of Chester’s Mill, instantly transforming this latter-day Grover’s Corners into a snow globe. The dome is in place by page three, and thereafter things start going to hell. About 980 pages later, they get there. Under the Dome is sprawling, messy, bizarre, infuriating, intermittently wonderful, and above all else, addictive. It’s Our Town meets No Exit, on a scale that makes Bleak House look like Of Mice and Men; a deeply flawed pop gem that’s hard to classify and hard on the wrists.

As the situation inside the dome grows increasingly dire, people start taking sides. Most of the town falls in line behind “Big Jim” Rennie, a sanctimonious, hypocritical town selectman. Rennie, a meth-lab-owning evangelical Christian, has been running Chester’s Mill like his own private plantation for as long as anyone can remember, and he sees the appearance of the dome as an opportunity to consolidate his power once and for all. If you’re still uncertain how King feels—and wants you to feel—about Rennie, consider his day job: used-car salesman.

Heading up the opposition is Dale “Barbie” Barbara, a fearless yet recalcitrant leader. An Iraq war veteran who quit the service as a lieutenant after witnessing (and tacitly participating in) the murder of an Iraqi civilian during the siege of Fallujah, he now lives the life of a regret-haunted but basically amiable drifter. At the book’s opening he has been working for some months as a short-order cook at Sweetbriar Rose, the only restaurant in Chester’s Mill, but after a bar fight with Junior Rennie (Big Jim’s son) the previous evening, he’s decided to hit the old dusty trail rather than stick around and deal with the wrathful Rennies. Barbie is literally standing on a road at the edge of town with his thumb out when the invisible gate swings shut, and the image of the gorgeous truck-driving blond who almost stopped for him—but then didn’t—haunts him for the duration of the novel. On the one hand, if she’d picked him up, he’d have been spared all this. On the other hand, she might have wound up trapped as well, or worse—the two of them could have driven into the dome at full speed and died in a fiery wreck, a fate which befalls several travelers in the early confusing period before the nature of the obstacle is understood.

Trapped in Chester’s Mill on account of the unaccountable dome, Barbie finds himself cast as the Rennies’ fall guy, their all-purpose Osama bin Boogeyman. Despite a direct order from the President of the United States declaring Barbie’s immediate re-enlistment into the U.S. army and simultaneous promotion to colonel (don’t ask),  Big Jim Rennie frames him for several murders and locks him up in the basement of the police station, where he sits for most of the book’s ponderous middle. Rennie is planning a high-profile trial for Barbie, followed by a public execution—but not before he holds a special town meeting to make official the “emergency powers” he has already been granted more or less without resistance. It is a matter of signal importance to this small-town Stalin that he not simply have the power, but that he be able to still effectively delude himself into believing he serves the collective will, at the insistence of a grateful populous.

Meanwhile, as plucky newspaper-woman Julia Shumway frets about the fate of a free press during times of crisis, the task of searching for the origins of the dome is farmed out to three (also plucky) middle-school kids, and basically everyone behaves as if local politics were a much more pressing concern than being, you know, trapped under an impenetrable dome.

Read as horror, you can’t help but call Under the Dome a failure. The book boasts a body-count in excess of its page-count—plus beatings, arson, explosions, and sexual assaults in gruesome spades—yet the reader never feels particularly “horrified.” Indeed, I barely felt discomfited. My emotional register tended to vacillate between mild indifference to the several dozen cartoon characters who make up the book’s primary cast; amusement at the myriad jokes, puns, malapropisms, and pop-culture references; and rapt fascination during pivotal if occasionally nonsensical plot developments, and the many excellent scenes of mob violence and/or massive devastation.

Still, even though horror has always been—and at this point it’s safe to say always will be—King’s primary touchstone, it’s not always his starting-point (or even his main point). As often as not it's a means to an end, rather than the end itself. King’s catalog is riddled with exceptions to his horror-meister reputation, from the exquisite paranoia of his anti-government suspense thrillers (The Dead Zone, Firestarter) to bizarre one-offs (The Cycle of the Werewolf, Dreamcatcher) and coming-of-age tales (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and The Body, better known as the film Stand By Me) to the epic meta-fantasy of the "Dark Tower" series.

Under the Dome ought to be read as a work of very broad, very black social satire. The individual characters don’t seem to matter very much, because they don’t. They are—to borrow one of the book’s own major tropes—little more than ants under a magnifying glass. Short of a few exquisitely deserved comeuppances, the most interesting scenes in the book never focus on individuals, or even on small groups, but rather on crowds—a food riot, a cataclysmic fire—and on the environment itself.

The dome has a greenhouse-type effect on the town, and it slowly becomes clear that while Chester’s Mill is in no particular short-term danger of running out of food or potable water, the air itself is rapidly going bad. Every bit of smoke or exhaust the citizenry produces, it’s stuck with. The longer the dome stays up, the warmer it gets in Chester’s Mill, even as the rest of New England enjoys a crisp October, and begins to ease from fall into winter. Passing observations about the disjunction between weather inside and outside of the dome are among the creepiest, and most deeply affecting, parts of the novel.

For all its structural and stylistic problems, and despite its bloat, there is a lot to admire in this book, even a bit to love. That cataclysmic fire, for example, is one of the most vivid disaster scenes I have ever encountered in King’s work, or anywhere else for that matter. I can’t tell you whether you’ll find it alone worth the price of admission, but I did. In fact, I was so impressed by it, I didn’t even care that I didn’t even care about most of what was going up in smoke.

Justin Taylor is the author of Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, a short story collection forthcoming from Harper Perennial in February 2010.