Stephen King is not often known for brevity, and his most recent novel, Under the Dome, is no exception. Clocking in at 1072 pages, it’s a commitment that ends, not too soon, but all too quickly.
The novel opens with a dome enveloping the small town of Chester’s Mill, Maine, enveloping it exactly to city limits specifications. In the process it bisects any unfortunate human or animal that may be straddling these limits. As a transparent boundary stretching for miles into the sky, any cars or planes that come across it are met with a destructive end. This impenetrable force soon sends the seemingly peaceful town into disarray, creating a dystopia with nightmares comparable to other King narratives.
The dome, in effect, brings Big Jim Rennie, a used car salesman and town official, further to the forefront of its day-to-day life and puts strains on his nefarious under-the-table dealings that financially benefit himself and a few select participants. The dome has also trapped Dale Barbara, an ex-military passer-through who was just begin run out of town by Big Jim’s son, Junior, and his inhospitable friends. As ex-military, the President taps Barbie to take control of the situation, an order that Big Jim Rennie will see is never followed. Big Jim gathers together an emergency police squad of his choosing and begins to establish marshal law, setting up a conflict between his followers and those who see through his political and financial machinations. All the while, the townspeople, along with the reader, wonder about the origins of the dome. Is it a military experiment, an environmental oddity, a curse from God, or an other-worldly trick?
While King’s novel is lengthy, it reads quickly, and while the ending occurs at an appropriate place, it does so too quickly. I felt a sense of narrative emptiness after reading the book, not necessarily because I needed more questions answered (although that would have been nice too), but because the ending lacked the emotional closure and resonance that had made the rest of the reading experience so engrossing.
Religion and theology play a key role in Under the Dome. Two key characters are ministers of contrasting congregations in the small town. One of whom, Piper Libby, begins to question her faith even more intensely when the dome descends. Another character, Chef, believes that God has ordained him to take on Big Jim’s plans to cease his illicit practices and believes that the dome signals an apocalyptic ending to, at least, this small town. Big Jim Rennie is deeply religious, though, as one might expect from a King novel, in a deeply violent, hypocritical manner. He too believes that God has ordained him for a higher purpose…to lead the sheep in this time of trial.
Despite some of its more stereotypical components, Under the Dome is a worthwhile read. It certainly provokes much thought over how we as communities would react should all the small things we take for granted be suddenly taken away or put in immediate peril. To top it all off, the novel includes one of the most frustrating characters in all of pop-lit in Big Jim Rennie.