Poor Dale Barbara. A day after being mobbed outside Dipper’s bar, the former Army vet just wants to get the hell out of town and start a new life somewhere else. A passing truck gives him a glint of hope as its brake lights flick on, but the moment is lost as the driver decides against it and speeds past him. Minutes later, he and nearly two thousand others are trapped inside Chester’s Mill, Maine as an invisible dome encapsulates the town.
This is my first Stephen King novel. I had seen The Stand mini-series, I read his guest articles in Entertainment Weekly, and last year I even read his autobiography-slash-writing-coach On Writing, but this was my first outing into an actual King book. I didn’t mind that it was nearly 1100 pages, but after last year’s nearly 800-page The Passage – that I absolutely adored – I was up for a new challenge. Here it was.
It’s not long after we’re introduced to Barbara that we meet the hyper arrogant, God’s-on-my-side, large man in town: “Big Jim” Rennie. He serves as second-in-charge of the quite burg, but his money, smart politiking, and a series of tragic events following the onset of the dome allow him to usurp virtually all authority – for the good of the town, of course. Using his influence over the newly-installed police chief, he turns the once-diminutive force into his own personalized army of thugs and sociopaths. Meanwhile, Barbara (or Baaarbie, depending on who you ask) is stop-lossed by his former Colonel by cell phone, given a hefty promotion, and selected by the President himself to gain authority of the town, but this simply isn’t going to fly on Rennie’s watch, who has no respect for a President with a terrorist middle name. So long as Barbie’s military friends are trapped outside the dome, and his friends inside are merely commonfolk, Big Jim’s cushy position isn’t going anywhere. As King builds out the population – from cooks and doctors to journalists and the absolutely corrupt – the town’s people start picking sides before eventually the violence spills over.
While Barbie and Rennie are pinpointed as the de facto protagonist/antagonists that the rest of the town align with, their characters are shallow reads: Barbie is obviously the good guy, Rennie is obviously the bad guy. Rennie’s cronies are immediately unlikable as paper-thin villains, removing much of the horror of the despicably evil things they do. King’s own cheeky, self-referential prose and brushes with the fourth wall undermine a true sense of dread the book aspires to (for instance: several chapters are from the perspective of a happy Corgi) which makes the thin characters look that much more cartoonish. King also doesn’t have much regard for organized religion, lampooning Christian attitudes and habits that will make even the most skeptic weary. In a smart, seemingly bi-partisan fashion, the book cleverly highlights the environmental effects that a closed-off ecosystem would have without dissolving to sermons on climate change.
Despite this, Under the Dome is an enthralling read; I only put the book down when I simply could not keep my eyes open any longer. It’s a triumph of scale that skirts greatness and while it doesn’t execute as well as it should, it kept me up many late nights wondering what came next for those folks of The Mill.