*disclaimer – I like Stephen King. He’s a funny, smart individual who I learned a lot from when I was much younger, before I even started writing books. When he did a book signing in… 1992 or so at my favorite bookstore in California, he took a few seconds to thank me for reading his books. As I’ve grown older, I’ve started to realize that while the books he wrote before I was in high school are amazing, he is not the same writer he was before his accident. I’ll try my best to not compare the Stephen King of old versus the new Stephen King.*
I was expecting, almost from the start, the nasty, giving the reader the bird twist that he pulled at the end of the Dark Tower series. Thankfully, he doesn’t do that so much as reiterate to a normal person that in life, you are at the mercy of an apathetic bully and hope that the bully decides to quit kicking you eventually. This disturbs me, but I’ll cover that later.
No, my first problem with Under the Dome comes early on, when it appears that King portrayed every single “devout” Christian in the Northeast to be nothing more than a wife beating, power abusing Southern Baptist. I capitalized those letters on purpose, for if you live in the south, you understand what I mean. The main antagonist is a power broker man who is technically the second “mayor” of a triumvirate leadership in a small town in central Maine (I’m assuming that’s where it is… I get lost easily). He uses his front man, the first “mayor” to shield him from any fallout from his illegal political dealings while consolidating his power base. This all comes to fruition when some invisible shield drops down over the town, preventing most air and water from coming in or going out (I don’t recall King explaining if it’s a sphere or just a cover. If it wasn’t a sphere, some good ol’ boys from West Virginia could have had that town dug out in twelve hours. But I digress…). The town quickly devolves into a Lord of the Flies mentality (which is admitted in the book) and divides into two camps: for the power broker man named “Big” Jim Rennie, or for the short order cook named Dale Barbara who was once a military officer.
Maybe I should have had another disclaimer here. King portrays the military man as one disillusioned with the United States and his senior officers. King claims that the officer carried around Mao’s Little Red Book while he was on tour in Iraq. I’d normally not have a problem with a little creative license with the military (partly because I do it all the time), but in this sense it doesn’t make any sense. No military officer, who was as committed as Barbara was (according to King), would carry around the Little Red Book in a war zone. I asked around to my military contacts and that is, perhaps, one of the worst items to carry around in a religious country where you are trying to establish a democracy. You want to start a religious war? Have an officer who is captured have that book on his or her person.
Before the dome crashes down around the town, Little Jim Rennie, the second selectman’s (“mayor”) son, commits murder. He kills a woman with his bare hands when he grows angry. It is later revealed that he has an inoperable brain tumor growing in his head and leads him to having uncontrollable urges to kill. This character, despite his barbarism and utter creepiness, is one you really wish you could root for to be healed before he does any more, for it is mentioned and reminisced that he was a good boy before the sudden and inexplicable change. He hides the body in her pantry (yeah, that’s a great place to stash a body in an emergency) and promptly goes from angry to afraid to creepy. He later commits more murder to hide the first but, oddly enough, nobody notices that people are missing due to the dome. he then proceeds to start calling them his “girlfriends” and spending a lot of time in the pantry (he shoved the second woman in there too), doing really creepy things to the bodies. I skipped that part a bit. It was… well, disturbing. His brain tumor is leading him to doing these horrible crimes, but that makes some sense to me. It’s the reaction of the townspeople to the dome and the problems that immediately arise that doesn’t.
They are initially frightened but calm, very calm. The nutcases (sorry, religious conservatives… King doesn’t leave the reader to paint their own opinion of the religious side of the town, he does it for them) react as though it’s nothing more than a chance to grab for power for the glory of God (well, that’s the way it seemed to me… I may be wrong) and hide their multiple misdeeds. A girl who lives on the outside of town and smokes a lot of pot and prefers women to men is brutally raped by some good ol’ boys, and so of course the townspeople believe what Big Jim tells them.
Okay, okay, enough with the idealism. Write the f***ing review, Jason.
The plot meanders quite a bit, but that’s typical of any King book. He replaced the necessity of having every person in his book chewing Wrigley’s or some other type of gum to “bumping knuckles”, which is amusing if it wasn’t so mistimed. The story is good, and my expectations of a horrible book were laid to rest around page 500. However, this is a long book and, even for me, not one to be read in one sitting. I actually went back and read a few selected chapters later and realized that my initial assessment was harsher than it needed to be. However, this is one of those books that will leave a mark on you, like The Stand.
The main protagonist isn’t very believable, and some of the characters are so two-dimensional that I’m afraid if they turn sideways they’ll disappear, but King does a good job fleshing out the minor characters. He does a tremendous job with the teenagers and making them slightly off, like all teenagers try to be, while endearing them to the reader. I particularly enjoy reading about the newspaper editor, for her character is a lot like the journalist I think most of them should strive to be. The ending is more than slightly demented, which is expected, but again, it’s good and disturbing.It’s a Stephen King book. Like a M. Night Shyamalan movie, King isn’t satisfied unless he messes with your mind at the end of a book.
Recommended borrow from the library unless you have to have every King book. It’s good, but not something I’d plunk $30 down for at Barnes & Noble. If you insist on buying it, buy the paperback. It’s a big book, and the paperback is a lot cheaper. In the end, you’ll thank me.
Reviewed by Jason