UNDER THE DOMEA novel by Stephen King
(2009, Simon & Schuster)
When a small town is separated from the rest of the world by a mysterious impenetrable dome, the true nature of the people there is revealed, as some grab power and others search for truth.
-- First reading (hardcover)
Very entertaining, but with a few too many deranged characters and too many stupid mistakes by others to make it truly fulfilling.
One of the most amusing lines in this book comes from a character who thought of writing a novel at one point, but thought, if she wrote a 1000 page book and it sucked, what to do then? This book comes in at more than one thousand pages, and it's pretty good. Overly long, I think, in that a few more characters could have been removed without much loss of storytelling, and no loss of story.
There is plenty of story in this book, as would be expected by any novel of this length. I love long stories, and I have to say that I was never bored, and there was never any thought of putting this one down for days while I re-gathered up the mood for it, as I've done with other stories (which were often less than half as long).
The Dome falls in the opening pages of the book, a barrier that cuts a groundhog in two, causes a plane and a truck to crash into it, as well as many birds. I love the author's conceit in the opening chapter, as well as several places throughout just before major disasters occur, to diverge from the normal narration point of view to move around town, telling us in the present tense what is happening and where, creating a summary of the collective thoughts and feelings of the townspeople.
For yes, the Dome has cut off the entire town from the rest of the world. They must become completely self-sufficient, which I suppose every small town believes it is. And there are several levels of self-sufficiency. There is physical survival, of course, in terms of food and power, especially given that the Dome falls at the end of October. There is political survival, in that the leaders must either step forward or fall away so that others can lead through this crisis. And there is personal survival, which includes securing secrets and providing safety for families.
All of these come into conflict at one point or another, or several, throughout the book. But the main focus is political, because that's where the leadership can do one of two things during a crisis: lead people as if they are smart and able to logically follow instructions, or assume they are stupid, thus creating a dictatorship so that they can run the town the way they see fit and make sure nobody steps out of line through the use of fear.
Jim Rennie uses the second tactic, because that's who he is. He rationalizes everything as God's will, though it is very obvious that there is no way his acts could be God's will. He has a superiority complex, probably a given because he sells overpriced used cars and has swindled so many gullible people, and a bad heart -in more ways than one.
A lot of people step up to be the bad people in this story, and unfortunately, it's probably realistic that this would be the case. I find it interesting that most of the thinkers in this book are the women, while most of the men become bullies. Junior Rennie (Jim's son) kills two young women in the first couple of chapters, and sexually harasses them after their dead. Fortunately, we don't have to witness that. He becomes the first new police officer, a complete bully with a brain tumor, which causes him to be even more violent.
The balance between tenderness and violence in this book is badly out of whack, which is probably normal for a horror-novel writer, and leads to a quicker feeling that somebody is about to drive the situation off a cliff. But after sitting through the details of a brutal rape of a young woman by the new police officers (some of Junior's friends), and very late in the book one of them essentially masturbating against a clothed woman against her will, it would have been nice to have details of lovemaking by people who were in love. The one time people actually have sex, it's limited to kissing, getting ready to tear their clothes off, and then there is a break, returning only in the morning.
Behind the scenes, Jim Rennie is pulling all the strings. He organizes a riot at the main grocery store in town, which justifies him hiring more thugs as police. He has his son burn down the local newspaper, because the woman who runs it is printing unpopular things about him. He actually kills two people on his own, after they try to expose him. One of those is his pastor, the other the wife of the former police chief (who died when his pacemaker exploded against the Dome).
For Rennie, part of taking charge was due to his need to run things his way. The other part was because he was running a drug production plant, crystal meth, at the back of the church radio station. This is a secret that he needs to cover up, and which will eventually cause the destruction of the town, as he tries to redistribute the propane he stole from all over the town to run the lab.
The author reduces the town population through attrition. Hundreds die on Dome Day, as they crash into the dome or have body parts severed. Only four are murdered, by Big Jim and his son Junior. Others commit suicide (including the girl who was raped, after finally killing one of the officers who raped her and the female officer who cheered them on, which I suppose is also murder) as the crisis drags on. I was completely surprised by the number of people who were killed in the fire that swept through the town, like a college science experiment except on a much larger scale. That fire, of course, used up all the air, turning the atmosphere poison, which killed the rest of the town. Under twenty people survived, from the original population of more than two thousand.
The heroes of the novel, who do not much more than survive, rather than saving the town, are Dale Barbara (known as Barbie), Rusty Everett (physician's assistant who becomes town doctor after the latter passes away) and Julia Shumway (editor of the local paper). Barbie has only lived in the town for less than a year, and the locals of his age (including Junior) don't like him, so they gang up on him, and he beats them up before the book begins (he served in Iraq, after all, and has a secret of his own that he's ashamed of, beating local Iraqis to death). So he is on his way out of town as the Dome falls, and he ends up just on the wrong side of it.
Barbara is liked by many of the good guys, and hated by the bad guys, and there are plenty on both sides. He is charged by the military outside the Dome with finding the its source and taking charge of the situation. Barbara is able to get a Geiger counter out of the emergency shelter under the town hall, but has assessed the town's political situation, where there is no way he could take charge. And when the military fails to breach the dome, Rennie uses this to his advantage, too.
Eventually, when things have built up enough, Barbara is arrested on the count of murder, and even the normally smart-thinking people of the town believe the charges, because Junior planted Barbara's dog-tags in one of the women's hands. It takes a while for them to see the truth, that the evidence is just too convenient, and it goes against Barbara's nature. But he's not from this town, so the deck is stacked against him from the start. They do break him out of jail, but it's a bloody affair, because Junior's brain tumor has reached a critical point and he thinks everybody is conspiring against him. So he kills some of the police guarding Barbara, and goes after Barbara in his cell, on the same night the smart-thinking officers are trying to get him out. Junior is shot in the back as they come down into the cell area.
Junior and the two killed by Sammy (the girl who had been raped) are the only ones who actually pay for their crimes in this book. Sure, Rennie dies while being haunted by ghosts and fleeing the shelter, only to breathe the poison air. But nobody knows this, as he dies alone. The others who did terrible acts die in the explosion and subsequent fire.
So what is the source of the fire? The Chef, Sammy's estranged husband, cooks up the crystal meth, and has become possessive about it, especially when Rennie tries to appropriate some of the propane to redistribute to the town. So he and a deranged Andy Sanders, who lost both his wife (to the dome in an airplane) and daughter (to Junior, unknown to him) start smoking the stuff together, and decide to defend the lab. When Rennie's men come and mortally wound The Chef, he detonates some explosives he hid in the chemical laboratory. The wildfire that ensues obliterates the town.
Fortunately, the adults in this book didn't trust themselves to find the source of the Dome (for afterwards, they were all in some sort of trouble, like jail). They handed the Geiger counter over to teenager Joe McClatchey and his friends, Ben and Norrie. It doesn't take them long to find the radiation ring that is a first defense of the small alien generator. They hand the information over to Joe's mom and Rusty, who goes out to the highest point in the town and finds the thing. And it is alien. When the humans touch the thing, they make mental contact with strange alien beings, who think them worthless, and who are enjoying the struggle of the people trapped within.
Because the aliens turn out to be kids, and the Dome is their version of putting ants under a magnifying glass and watching them burn. After the fire, during which time Barbara instructed the military to install huge fans just outside the dome (because the kids all had premonitions of a big fire on Halloween), the survivors are breathing the scant air that is coming through the Dome. Julia decides that she should go beg to the alien kids to let them loose. And she does, drawing on the memories that everyone has shared with her about things they did which they felt was wrong, including Barbara's time beating up Iraqis, and when Julia was beaten as a girl.
And so the Dome is removed, and at least a few people from the town survive.
Of course, this small town almost deserved to be wiped off the map, given the number of bullies, stupid people and power-hungry maniacs who inhabited it! This includes the person who was supposed to be in charge, Andy Sanders (who instead bows to everything Rennie says), as well as the new police chief Randolph (who probably doesn't have a brain and is merely a face for everything Rennie does), and many others.
Others make a multitude of stupid mistakes, which I suppose are lessened by the fact that the author calls them stupid mistakes as well. As a reader, though, they stand out as things necessary for the plot to work, and can be called contrived. Yes, people make mistakes, like Rusty forgetting to check Rennie's chart after his heart attack, so his attempt at blackmail by withholding medicine (which Rennie already received) only gets him beat up and put in jail. Rennie has a grudge against Rusty because he can think by himself, and won't bow to Rennie without asking pertinent questions. When Andrea, third in line for leadership of the town, finally kicks her drug habit, she drops her gun by accident while trying to kill Rennie -oops. Brenda, widow of the former police chief, makes a big mistake by going to see Rennie by herself, against the express instructions of Barbara, giving the evidence of the drug lab and money laundering to Andrea (who ends up dead, of course). As already mentioned, Brenda ends up dead, too.
For the most part, though, people in this town don't ask any questions, and are led along through the crisis the way they've been led along by the corrupt city council for years. This is fine for the most part, except that those who do think don't actually get anywhere against the corrupt. The finale of the book is more sedate, as the bad guys die amongst themselves and the good guys simply survive.
I don't require an actual showdown, but it might have been more satisfying to see the efforts of the good guys pay off somehow, and not just in surviving, and having the bad guys pay for their actions, maybe at the hands of the good guys or the law. Still, the ending wasn't unsatisfying, because the good guys did survive because of their brains, and the bad guys died either fighting amongst themselves or haunted by their actions in the end.
The book didn't let up from beginning to end, and it was a lot of fun, which is almost all I can ask for in a book.
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