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Stephen King Is Paid By The Pound

November 30th, 2009 No comments

It took two weeks, but yesterday afternoon I finished reading Under the Dome, Stephen King’s 1,060+ page magnum opus about a small town which suddenly finds itself trapped underneath an invisible force bubble.

Many articles about the novel have cited its similarity to The Simpsons Movie–in which a glass dome is lowered over Homer’s city of Springfield–but the idea is older than that. In Arch Oboler’s 1966 3-D film The Bubble, aliens sealed a trio of travelers in a spooky community populated by pre-programmed townfolk.

And, when you get right down to it, it’s your basic Twilight Zone concept: trap a group of people under mysterious circumstances and watch them turn on each other. It’s “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” writ large.

While Under the Dome covers some of that familiar “Maple Street” ground–our tendency to look for enemies amongst our neighbors–it’s really about the cruelty of crowds. A collective may commit atrocities that would never occur to a single person. The specter of Abu Gharib haunts the memories of the book’s lead character, an ex-soldier named Dale Barbara.

The story is set in the near future during President Obama’s second term, but it appears to be looking back to the Bush/Cheney administration. King evokes its incompetence and venality in the personage of Chester’s Mill’s ineffective First Selectman Andy Sanders and the power behind the throne, Big Jim Rennie.

Rennie proves that one need not resort to aliens or vampires to peer deep into evil. A scripture-quoting hypocrite, he studiously avoids bad words (“clustermug” is a favored substitute) even as he sows terror, commits bare-handed murder and operates the largest meth lab in the country. One of his verbal tics is to suggest, with each new death under his watch, that the deceased is now sitting at Jesus’ table eating pork chops and/or peach cobbler. By the end of the book, Jesus needs to add several extra leaves to that table.

Big Jim pursues power without purpose. His drug business has brought him millions of dollars, yet he has no ambitions beyond lording it over his small community. He sees the Dome as an opportunity to make his dominance permanent, backed up by a newly-minted police force composed of the town’s worst thugs.

I’d originally thought that Under the Dome would be a portrayal of the long-term effects of life with ever-diminishing supplies and a breakdown of the old social order, and I’d still like to read that book. Instead, King’s working under a much-accelerated timeline. Chester’s Mill is a (literal) bomb waiting to be set off, and it takes only days for everything to go to hell.

The story is frustrating at times. Rennie is one of those bad guys with an uncanny knack of being three steps ahead of the good guys. Our heroes are woefully disorganized, with an unfortunate tendency to confront Big Jim one at a time. Not a good idea, especially if he’s in arm’s reach of his golden baseball.

If I have one disappointment with Under the Dome, it’s that there’s never a big showdown of ideologies. We don’t find out how the community at large reacts once the wheels begin coming off Big Jim’s Hummer. This is a story in which good perseveres because it runs for the hills once the shit comes down.

While there aren’t any true monsters here (except perhaps for a few ghosts), there are a pair of hideous creatures. Junior Rennie is unknowingly in the final stages of brain cancer which turns him into a killer and necrophiliac. Then there’s the self-styled Chef who runs the meth factory, a cadaverous character who sees God’s work in every crystal.

There’s also at least one mythical creature among King’s vast cast. The publisher of the town paper is an allegedly dyed-in-the-wool Republican who drives a Prius and appears to value facts and reason over Rennie’s appeals to base emotion. But hey, I guess I can allow the author one completely unbelievable idea.

Don’t go Under the Dome expecting the truly unexpected. When it comes to the nature and purpose of the invisible bubble, King tips his hand relatively early. The answer is one which would’ve seemed familiar to Rod Serling.

That said, it’s an engrossing book. It’s only easy to put down because it’s so damned heavy.