Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Under the Dome (2009)

The gist of Stephen King's latest novel is succinctly described by the title itself and expounded upon by the wraparound jacket art, which contains no description whatsoever, not even a blurb or author photo. The image of a New England tourist 'burb trapped beneath a translucent dome -- a crashed airplane near one side, a small dog looking plaintively out another, a church on fire in the distance -- does the job of several thousand words. Such is the situation for the long-bestselling Mr. King that his books, however small or large, now need no introduction.

Under the Dome begins with the eponymous Dome descending from Space Unknown (to the great misfortune of a foraging woodchuck) and ends with it silently rising back into the sky. Who put it there and why are not the primary concerns of the story, and those reading only for those puzzles will come away disappointed; the Dome is transparently (pun intended) a deus ex machina meant to showcase conflict. It serves the same purpose as George Romero's shambling legions of dead folk: why they're there is not nearly so important as how people handle the crisis.

To this end, the town of Chester's Mill, Maine (neighboring the familiar King-doms of Castle Rock, Derry, and TR-90), fragments in a relative hurry with big assistance from a blustery town selectman and used car salesmen, name of Big Jim Rennie, who is more inclined to political machination than community organization. That semi-thankless job will fall to decorated Iraq War veteran-turned-short order cook Dale Barbara, on the run from his past but not running fast enough to escape either the judgment of the Dome or Rennie's attempts to keep him from usurping power, even when Barbara is deputized by the President himself.

As the case would be, of chief concern to the Outside World is getting the citizens of Chester's Mill liberated; on the inside, it's simple survival of the fittest. And those vying for their survival are divided into two camps: the Good and the Bad. Rennie, turns out, is very, very bad (think Captain Ahab as Mayor of Mayberry). His ultimate motivation is not the welfare of the citizens but the stowage of his own secret: an outskirts-of-town meth factory so large it supplies most of New England with product. Barbara just wants to leave town, already, but his sense of duty -- spurred by Julia Shumway, owner of the town newspaper -- will prevail. In the meanwhile there are intrigues a-plenty, from a serial killer preying on the trapped victims to the town's children having eerie, identical nightmares about falling pink stars. This being a Stephen King novel, not everyone will come to a happy ending.

Despite the book's size, this is not an epic in the usual sense -- just a thriller-diller with a surplus of moving parts (in fact, it often seems strangely and decidedly non-epic, such is King’s prowess with storytelling intimacy). Given the plethora, there are inevitable weak spots: too many stock characters (several named alike); too much obvious, melodramatic Law and Order-esque dialogue; too damn many pages, et cetera. But frankly, King gets raked over for variations of these sorts of things, all the time, anyway. It misses the point. Which is this: King, like Dumas and Shakespeare before him, is writing for a popular audience, one looking for meaty entertainment, not necessarily literary showmanship (more on that in a moment).

King delivers the beef, even manages to sneak in a broad lesson or two. He has explicitly stated how Under the Dome is "about [our] serious ecological problems. We have this little blue world, and it appears like that's about all there is. We haven't seen evidence of anyone else. We're on our own, and we have to deal with it. All of us." That ideology doesn't come into play until the novel's final hundred pages; more to the forefront is a commentary on the current divisionary tactics in American politics. Rennie often comes across like a porcine first cousin to Rush Limbaugh, reaching around the obvious truth to grasp the ideas necessary to serve his own purposes. While Rennie is a good description of the kind of misled idiots who sometimes end up, by hook or by crook, in power in small tourist towns, this is King's thinly veiled criticism of the Bush administration and how it handled crisis, right down to the two airplanes that strike the sides of the (Super) Dome.

To serve this end, the characterizations are suitably stark and static. This creates a dearth of surface friction but King is working in absolutes, Survival vs. Death. The reader is presented a type of morality play old as time and moving at breakneck speed, King’s favorite gear, housed in a dressed-up "disaster" template like Towering Inferno or Airport. The isolation and dread he describes will be solidly familiar to anyone who has ever had to deal with crippling coastal storms: King perfectly evokes the outside-of-time atmosphere which settles over an area in the path of a hurricane or nor'easter. During such emergencies, shades of gray only muddy the palette.

At a time when genre fiction is finally getting its due -- Lovecraft and Chandler and Philip K. Dick are all published by the prestigious Library of America; Pulitzer-Prize winning Michael Chabon is embracing comic book and crime noir narratives -- our most popular author of potboilers is getting bolder in his experimentation, seemingly shrugging off his old, self-applied critique that his work is the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries. There are burger meals which transcend drive-thru fare, as Umberto Eco will tell you. King's last couple short story collections include flat-out literary exercises, such as the excellent "All That You Love Will Be Carried Away" (which appeared in The New Yorker), alongside the expected horrors. Under the Dome is spiced with sweeping, omniscient overviews ("Thanks to the magic of narration..." begins one) which break away to showcase the citizens of Chester's Mill, their reactions to the crisis, their precious foibles, their logical fears; these little tableaus would not be out of place in Winesburg, Ohio or A Lesson Before Dying. And, let's face it, there's more than one latter-day Pulitzer winner, rich with language but nevertheless sorely underdone in terms of plot, which could benefit from a little time sizzling on King’s barbeque grill, or at least steaming in his pressure cooker. Kiss the cook and pass the fries.

Originally published in the Mobile Register, April 04 2010