Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Review: Under the Dome by Stephen King

Under the DomeUnder the Dome by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'd been meaning to read this book for quite some time, but its length intimidated me. I imagined a lot of sagging narrative and droning passages. After I picked it up on audio, the length was less apparent, and I listened to it happily. I was surprised to find a tight narrative with very little breathing room in the 34 ½ hours of listening time.

The story is straightforward: Chester's Mill is a small town in Maine that's suddenly, inexplicably blocked off by an impenetrable dome. While the US government scrambles to destroy it, a selectman in the town makes a power grab, recruiting young people to the police force to back him up, while a small handful of residents try to get rid of the dome from inside.

But that doesn't cover all of the story. This is a story of James "Big Jim" Rennie, the evil selectman running Chester's Mill, and of Dale "Barbie" Barbara, who's tasked with saving the town. It's also about Eric "Rusty" Everett and his wife and kids, the Dinsmore family on the edge of town, Phil and Samantha Bushey and their son Little Walter, Julia Shumway and her corgi Horace, Jackie Wettington and Carter Thibodeau and Peter Randolph and Andy Sanders and Rose Twitchell and Andrea Grinnell. The cast is even larger than that, but suffice it to say that there are a lot of people who appear in this book. The town has a population of about 2000 people, and few are strangers by the end of the book.

It's also a story steeped in metaphor. The dome is a commentary on 9/11, and the loss of liberty thereafter. It's a manifestation of the gravitational pull small towns exert on their residents. It's an indictment of the Katrina response (someone even tells Rennie he's doing a heckuva job). And it's the worst thing to happen to Chester's Mill and its 2000 residents.

The book's approach echoes 9/11 closely. It's no accident that a lot of the rhetoric and fear is the same as that following 9/11, and the weather changes bring to mind the eerie calm in the sky after the US was declared a no-fly zone. The body count in Chester's Mill is lower than on 9/11, but we feel the pain of every death. We learn that liking a character doesn't save him or her, in the end. We also see the helplessness of those outside, and the horrible choice faced by those who can either kill themselves (as many did on 9/11 by jumping from windows as the building burned) or await a fiery death.

The horror element is mostly human in Under the Dome. While the cause of the dome is supernatural, it's Rennie's and his cronies' response to it that turns the situation deadly. Rennie deliberately incites fear to tighten his stranglehold, and shows no remorse when people die or are seriously wounded as a result.

For all his evil, though, Rennie is human. He doesn't want to see how he's hurting everyone with his choices, and so he doesn't. I've known people like Rennie, ones who luckily didn't have his power. They stick to their poor choices, refusing to examine their motives, or the consequences of their choices. I've seen others react the way Pete Randolph and Junior and his friends do, too, mistaking stupid stubbornness for strength and integrity. If Rennie knows the harm he's caused the town, he never acknowledges it.

I'm glad Stephen King wrote this book. Sometimes, the scariest monsters are the ones walking among us. The best way to fight them is by learning to recognize them for what they are, and robbing them of their power before they get it. I hope that message sinks into the book's many, many readers. We're the ones with the power to stop people like Rennie.

As I mentioned, I listened to this book on audio, narrated by Raul Esparza. For the most part, I enjoyed his delivery. Because of the large cast of characters, though, he often had to vary accents to make each character sound distinctive. I couldn't figure out why people from the same Maine small town would have such different accents. Rennie had a Texan drawl that went with his lines just fine, but that drove me to distraction, wondering what a good ol' boy was doing in Maine. Had he a Maine accent like everyone else, though, he likely would've been hard to tell apart. At least Esparza's Maine accent was passable.


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