"Under the Dome" by Stephen King; Scribner (1,074 pages, $35)
It's hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for Stephen King.
Not because he's suffering a dip in popularity, a decline in wealth or a dearth of creativity - rather, his gripping narratives must now contend with the low hum of horror in the everyday background. Whether it's the threat of swine flu, a fragile stock market or the omnipresent spectre of terrorism, reality is often far more nerve-racking than any imagined boogeyman.
What better way for King to confront this considerable obstacle than drafting an epic firmly rooted in an anxious, post-9/11 landscape? "Under the Dome" is the best-selling author's most substantial novel since 1990's revised, uncut edition of "The Stand" ("Dome" weighs in at 1,074 pages).
In it, he attempts to sum up the last decade of American life in microcosm, right down to the bitterly political fissures in the facade of small-town existence; the creeping pestilence of meth addiction; our country's hair-trigger paranoia and the veneer of religion judiciously applied by hypocrites.
Utilizing a cast of more than 100 characters and his signature brand of pop culture-infused prose, King crafts a viciously entertaining, if thematically thin, thrill ride, pitting well-intentioned good against pure evil.
Bucolic Chester's Mill, Maine, a town of only a few thousand, is suddenly and mysteriously cut off from the rest of the world by a transparent, domed force field.
A gorgeous fall day gives way to death, panic and chaos, as the townspeople struggle to make sense of this upheaval. There are those frightened souls who, nevertheless, want to proceed rationally (soldier-turned-short order cook Dale Barbara; indefatigible medic Rusty Everett; no-nonsense newspaper editor Julia Shumway) and those who want nothing more than to twist the puzzling situation to their advantage (town selectman Jim Rennie and his hapless cronies, including Rennie's mentally disturbed son, Junior). The struggle to maintain some semblance of normalcy quickly devolves into a fight for survival, as tradition and decorum give way to startling savagery.
Adapted from a novel that King first attempted to write in the late '70s, "Under the Dome" wastes little time doling out the queasily specific gore - the body count starts to mount just five pages in - and King maintains a breathless pace as the crisis escalates.
The good people of Chester's Mill slowly realize the gravity of the situation, as commodities like propane begin disappearing and access to food becomes restricted. King displays his flair for flitting between various narrative threads early; the opening sequences of carnage and confusion feel like dispatches from a war zone. Evocative and suffused with dread, the first 200 pages or so are some of the most grueling and vivid King has authored in some time.
When "Under the Dome" segues from the initial shock into the town's drift into "us" versus "them," King becomes mired in the minutiae of small-town backstabbing and picket fence gossip, making the tale's middle third a bit mushy. "Big" Jim Rennie, the tale's de facto villain, is a satiric riff on Rush Limbaugh-as-born-again-car-dealer; while many of Rennie's deeds are repulsive, too much of King's characterization consists of barbed criticism of the religious right wing rather than character development.
The author also seems overly infatuated with reinforcing just how much has changed culturally since his "Captain Trips" apocalypse in "The Stand" 30 years ago. His ceaseless references to CNN personnel become irksome by the novel's final chapters; it doesn't add any verisimilitude, any more than do his frequent allusions to James McMurtry's "Talkin' at the Texaco."
"Under the Dome" also suffers - surprisingly - from its supernatural twist. Without treading into spoiler territory, suffice to say that much of the protracted climax, despite tying in thematically and driving home King's overall point about man's inhumanity to man, feels like a compromise. Explaining the dome's genesis and its reason for existence dilutes some of the novel's potency and gives the finale a pat air, which undermines some of its early brutality.
Inevitably, King's sprawling, cinematic narrative will draw comparisons to the vastly more engrossing "The Stand." Of course, doing so diminishes "Dome," which never quite musters "The Stand's" precise balance of moral outrage, gritty thrills and engaging characters.
Although "Under the Dome" attempts to bear a similar allegorical weight, it fails to shoulder the burden, instead settling for slick, violent theatrics laced with a handful of utterly gorgeous passages. Despite falling short of brilliance, many of "Under the Dome's" pleasures stem from enjoying a graceful writer at his wryly pessimistic best.
But try as he might, King's tireless imagination and nimble wordsmithery simply cannot compete with modern life's unsettling realities - a truly terrifying notion.