By Graham Joyce
Saturday, November 14, 2009
UNDER THE DOME
By Stephen King
Scribner. 1,074 pp. $35
In 2002 Stephen King announced that he'd given up writing. Yes, and the Queen of England said she'd had it with servants and fancy carriages and was off to do volunteer work in Somalia. . . . You can't write 2,000 words a day for more than three decades and suddenly stop. Because, as King knows perfectly well, you don't give up writing; writing gives up you, but only when it's good and done with you. And writing isn't done with King, not by a long shot.
Here we are, several years after this putative abdication, with a novel that comes thumping in at more than 1,000 pages. In an author's note, King says he started "Under the Dome" in 1976 but then "crept away from it with my tail between my legs. . . . I was terrified of screwing it up." Fortunately, he found the confidence to return to this daunting story because the result is one of his most powerful novels ever.
On a beautiful, crisp October morning in Chester's Mill, Maine, a plane falls from the sky; a farmer's John Deere blows up, taking the farmer with it; a woman's hand is severed; a truck crashes into nothing. A transparent dome has mysteriously descended over the town's perimeter, sealing it off from the outside world.
This science-fiction premise isn't new, but there is more than one way to seal a dome. It's a literary technique we might call the crucible: a simple device to contain the characters and restrict flight from the drama ahead, enabling the author by increments to turn up the heat. "Lord of the Flies" is a classic example, circumscribing events by trapping those boys on an island. The dome itself is not terribly important, and once it is in situ, it allows the author to get on with his real purpose.
That purpose reveals King's greatest qualities as a writer. Life under the dome, with finite resources and with the best and worst of human nature emerging, soon deteriorates. Small-town politicians and newspaper publishers adopt conflicting positions. There is a scramble for resources. The air quickly becomes polluted. Citizens start to panic, and corruption, in the form of sleazy, villainous alderman Jim Rennie, drives the town and its police force as martial law takes over.
Outside, the government's efforts to puncture the dome are useless. Federal officials think they have a man on the inside, ex-captain now short-order cook Dale Barbara, a disillusioned veteran of the Persian Gulf War. The government wants to concentrate its efforts through Barbara, and we see the town through his eyes, too. Only trouble is, Rennie and his ragtag police force take exception to the idea of Barbara exercising any authority. Rennie also wants to keep hidden his lucrative sideline in the manufacture of crystal meth.
Very early the story begins to trigger strange echoes, because we are deep in the world of a cleverly operated allegory. Yet never once do we doubt the veracity of this large cast of characters. The psychological insight into these small-town people is pin-sharp, vivid and utterly convincing. King's greatness lies in his uncanny genius for creating characters and understanding the hive-mind of a community.
The dome itself remains pretty much the only supernatural element in the novel (give or take some references to the super-sensitivity of dogs). Unlike "The Stand," another book with a large cast and often considered to be King's best, this is a realist novel. It's also a foot-on-the-gas-narrative told in breathless idiomatic style. King couldn't give two hoots for ornamental language or lyrical phrasing, but you've got to admire him for making this so compelling.
Although he's an undisputed master of suspense and terror, what gives King's work heft is his moral clarity. The harrowing climax of "Under the Dome" stems from a humane vision. It's another work in an oeuvre that identifies compassion as the antidote to evil, whether that evil be human or supernatural. And our stock of literature in the great American Gothic tradition is brilliantly replenished because of it.
Joyce's most recent novel is "How to Make Friends With Demons."