Review Index

STEPHEN KING (Scribner; 2009)

If this novelís nonfiction afterward is to be believed, UNDER THE DOME has been in the works since 1976, when Stephen King gave up on it after two weeksí work. He got back to the project three decades later, resulting in this 1074-page opus. I donít feel UNDER THE DOME is the triumphant return to form for King that many are dubbing it, but it is lively and readable, marrying old and new (as in pre and post 1990) Stephen King in satisfying fashion, just as youíd expect from a tale conceived back in the seventies but written in the present.

     The premise is quite simple, so much so that the hardcover edition doesnít even bother with a plot description, simply letting the cover art, depicting a small town inside a large transparent dome, speak for itself. That dome, a vast and invisible enclosure, covers the community of Chesterís Mills, Maine one morning, effectively cutting it off from the outside world. The dome is impervious to bullets, airplanes and even a missile fired at it from outside, meaning thereís no way out for the unfortunate populace trapped within.

     Among the dozens of people caught under the dome are Barbie, an Iraq veteran turned fry cook; Julia, the muckraking editor of the local newspaper; Big Jim, a slimy meth-dealing politician; and Junior, the latterís psychotic necrophilia-loving offspring. All four play important roles in the drama to come, with Big Jim taking it upon himself to rally the scared populace. Junior is among those he deputizes to maintain order, just as a ragtag resistance is organized. Barbie and Julia are at the forefront of the rebellion, and pay for standing up to Big Jimís fascistic rule: Juliaís newspaper building is torched and Barbie tossed in jail on a trumped-up charge.

     The above is but a small portion of this massive novelís storyline. Itís something of an oddity in the King cannon, containing the length and breadth of the unexpurgated STAND but not the scope. The whole thing takes place within the contained radius of Chesterís Mill, making this the ultimate small town novel. As such itís concerned primarily with small town happenings, such as a mini-riot at a local supermarket and a town hall meeting around which the narrative pivots.

     Other important events include a scheme to break Barbie out of jail (which takes several hundred pages to put into action) and a quest for the identity and whereabouts of the domeís architects. This latter portion is never satisfyingly worked out; yes, we do eventually learn the how and where of the domeís creators, but the whole business is left murky, as if King realized there was no way to adequately explain his fantastic concept.

     Thereís also an ecological metaphor, with the air in the dome dirtied by the pollutants the Millsí residents release into the enclosed atmosphere. King has claimed in interviews he didnít want to get ďtoo heavyĒ with that aspect, and he doesnít, although the domeís ecosphere does eventually grow downright toxic, precipitated by a certain cataclysmic eventÖbut Iíll let you discover that on your own.

     In the end, of course, UNDER THE DOME works simply because itís fun. King knows how to spin a yarn, and proves that here in simple and direct fashion, providing thrills, scares, some romance, a few scattered laughs and even a message or two. UNDER THE DOME may not be Kingís best work, but as a robust exercise in controlled excess itís a standout.