Book Review: Under the Dome

It took me almost 4 weeks, but I’ve finished Stephen King’s doorstep latest novel Under the Dome: A Novel (and then it took me an additional four weeks to get around to writing a review - what can I say, December was a little nuts). A whopper at 1,100 pages – which translates into 34.5 hours of audiobook – it’s classic King. Classic, sprawling, epic King.

It's a beautiful fall day in Chester's Mill, Maine, a little town situated in a positively bucolic area and King describes it so with such feeling and detail you can almost see its beauty and smell the crisp, fall air. King also gives us a taste of the rot in this particular bushel of apples when he describes our hero, Dale "Barbie" Barbara - veteran of the Iraq war, currently short order cook - on his way out of town after a latenight parking lot fight with Jim Rennie’s son Junior and his buddies. And right at this moment, the factions in what is to come are established: Jim "Big Jim" Rennie, the town's second Selectman, on one side, Dale Barbara, reluctant hero, on the other.

Barbie’s on the side of the road not too far away from a grumpy old woodchuck when out of nowhere, a huge, transparent dome slams down, neatly following the town borders. In short chapter after short chapter, we follow the consequences - the woodchuck is neatly bisected, a plane crashes and suffice it to say, this dome gives a whole lot of people a whole lot of problems, some of them fatal. But this is just the beginning. Over the next week - yes, the 1,100 pages cover just seven days - the town becomes a microcosm of distilled America. Titular head of the town is the first selectman, Andy Sanders, a naïve, aw-shucks figurehead for the real man in charge, Big Jim Rennie, a man of such spectacular and sickening manipulative evil that it’s easy to make the leap to King using the Bush-Cheney government as a model. Locked under an impenetrable dome, Big Jim is free to run roughshod over the town, ignoring laws, creating his own, complete with an ever-growing army of thugs and his aim is to bring about a situation in which the town gives him unlimited powers to do exactly what he wants. Opposed by a ragtag band of citizens including Barbie, Julia Shumway (editor of the towns’ newspaper) and Rusty Everett (physician's assistant thrust in to the role of town doctor), the situation turns into a tighter and tighter spiral of tension, including kids with visions, homicides - some sanctioned by Big Jim, some not -and an ever-decreasing quality of air.

Under the Dome is a commentary on how easy it is to create an authoritarian regime and an impassioned argument for environmental change. In interviews, Stephen King has spoken about how we on this planet all live under a dome (i.e., the atmosphere) and seeing our pollution problems shrunk down to a small town in Maine makes them that much more understandable and urgent.

As the novel builds to its climax, things get worse and worse and there are times when the relentless pace of catastrophe leaves you gasping, desperate for a break, but you don't get one. And at the end, the only word I had for what was happening to the people you have come to care about (or hate) was merciless - King is utterly uncompromising in following the path of the story, of the characters to their inevitable conclusion.

Under the Dome reminded me of The Stand - sprawling, epic, apocalyptic, huge cast of characters - and in a way, it felt familiar, like re-visiting an old friend (if you're friends with really horrible things, that is). In recent years, King has moved towards what I like to call "adult horror" in Bag of Bones, Lisey's Story and Duma Key, a development I've thoroughly enjoyed and Under the Dome is a return to more traditional King. Turns out there's nothing wrong with that - much as I enjoy his adult horror, traditional King is a one hell of a roller coaster ride, keeping you locked in and hooked until the very last page, even though sometimes, you wish you could close your eyes for a particularly steep drop.

After I started reading audiobooks, I came to appreciate Stephen King’s talent more than I did before - his books are ideal campfire stories, the rhythm in his writing lending itself particularly well to being read aloud and the past, I've highly recommended going the audiobook route. Not this time. It's read well by Raul Esparza, but not in the breathtakingly perfect manner of Mare Winningham (Lisey’s Story) or John Slattery (Duma Key) and Esparza makes a couple of odd choices in terms of characterization that end up getting a bit in the way of the story, so this time, I’d recommend reading the book yourself – that is, if your hands can handle the weight. If not, the audiobook will work just fine, but either way, read it. You'll have a blast.