UNDER THE DOME, by Stephen King. Scribner, 1,075 pp., $35.
For a guy who claims to love quaint little Yankee towns, Stephen King sure has ravaged a lot of them. Chester's Mill, the setting of King's new novel, "Under the Dome," seems pleasant enough, but it sits in northern Maine not far from Castle Rock (death by dynamite), Jerusalem's Lot (arson) and Derry (monsters) - a fact that does not bode well for its survival.
Neither does the Dome - an invisible, impenetrable barrier that suddenly forms around the town. It cuts apart anything (people, animals) in the way when it first appears, renders nearby electronics useless (or makes them explode) and generally causes a nuisance. It also sequesters the town from the rest of the world and allows King to do something he always excels at: hold his characters hostage until they start showing their true colors.
Our hero is Dale Barbara, an Iraq vet and short-order cook who's trying to skip town after running afoul of local thug Junior Rennie and half a dozen of Rennie's friends. None of these people would provide much of a challenge to Barbara ("Barbie," to his friends) were it not for the senior Rennie, Big Jim - a born-again used car salesman and the town's second selectman who runs Chester's Mill with an iron fist in a very thin velvet glove. Big Jim has a number of infuriating quirks: He refuses to curse, but uses euphemisms that keep the beat ("shoot," "darn," "cotton-picking"); he reflexively and repeatedly tells the bereaved that their loved ones are "having supper with Jesus"; he is, of course, an unspeakable hypocrite. We deeply loathe only a couple of characters in this book (Big Jim's right-hand man, Carter, a brutal rapist, is one), but we really enjoy hating Big Jim. You just know King has him earmarked for a particularly unpleasant death.
Readers looking for stylish prose and tastefully wrought internal conflict should excuse themselves from this book, as they have from the rest of King's novels and story collections, but they will be missing out (again). There are few writers for whom a four-digit page count is a marketing bonus, but King is chief among them. "Finally!," his fans think to themselves, gleeful at the prospect of a book thick enough to stop a bullet, "I'll get a Stephen King book that will last a while!"
Those people are shoot out of luck, so to speak. "Under the Dome" moves so fast and grips the reader so tightly that it's practically incapacitating, and most will probably lose the fight to make it last longer than a couple weeks. I read it while crossing the street at least twice. It should come with all kinds of warning labels.
"Under the Dome" moves so fast, in fact, that by the time somebody finally gets around to floating theories about what in God's name the Dome is and who's behind it, we've actually forgotten to care. People are being murdered, conspiracies are being hatched, precious propane is being stolen and there's a meth lab being run out of the Christian radio station. What Dome? Where?
Beneath the dozen-or-so subplots, though, the penned-in townsfolk also give King a chance to write some astute social satire of a kind he hasn't attempted since "The Stand" (a better book. People in Chester's Mill are Good or Bad; characters in "The Stand" scared us by keeping us guessing which way they'd jump). If "Under the Dome" isn't the scariest book he's ever written, it may be the funniest, and the bleakest. Chester's Mill suffers from the same blights that threaten to destroy real-life small-town America: meth and OxyContin addictions, local corruption, a public discourse poisoned by cranks and ideologues (Big Jim is one of those guys who calls it "the Democrat party").
Oddly, King's perspicacity about rural woes undermines the book's payoff. It's fun, it's action-packed and just desserts are served, but the supernatural showdown rings hollow when read alongside descriptions of meth addiction and rape (the book's most distasteful scene, and one that could have been shorter, frankly). The human monsters in "Under the Dome" are so terrifying and immediate that they make the otherworldly menace look contrived by comparison. It's an interesting problem for a horror writer, but griping about it is like criticizing the workmanship of a bomb after the dust has cleared. It went off, didn't it?
STEPHEN KING BY THE NUMBERS
62 - Stephen King's age
25 - Number of years since King first began writing "Under the Dome"
76 - Number of books by King
32 - Number of movies adapted from King's books