One bright, beautiful, end-of-summer day, Chuck Thompson is giving Claudette Sanders a flying lesson. They are far above the town of Chester’s Mill, enjoying the freedom of flight. Though they don’t know it, they are in the last few moments of their lives: with brutal suddenness, their plane crashes into an invisible surface that wasn’t there seconds ago and shouldn’t be there now. That fiery plane crash is the first indication for the people of Chester’s Mill that something has gone horribly wrong with their world, and that something is the Dome.
At first, no one understands what’s happened. In the first 24 hours, there is chaos as birds, cars, deer, humans, and speeding pulp trucks run into the immovable surface of the dome that exactly surrounds the town. No one can get out, and no one — and nothing, including air and water — can get in. Land line phones have been cut, but cell phones and wireless Internet are still working, and many people in this small New England town have generators… for a while, until they run out of propane.
Of course, most people are panicked, bewildered, heartsore at the loss of loved ones on the other side of the barrier. There are a few exceptions: Jim Rennie, the town’s oily Second Selectman, who feels he is made to take charge in a crisis like this; Junior Rennie, who is too absorbed in the murders he’s just committed to be frightened of the Dome; and Dale Barbara (“Barbie”), an Iraq veteran and fry-cook who knows that worse is coming and that he must stay calm if anyone is to survive.
I admit to being a big fan of Stephen King’s writing. There was a time when I’d read everything he’d written; now he’s put out some things in ebook and audio format that I haven’t kept up with, but I’ve still read all his novels. Many of them are absolutely wonderful; others are trash that’s not worth reading, but there is no one — and I mean no one — writing today with an ear for dialogue like King. He just simply writes the way people talk. He’s fearless about using pop culture references. He’s funny and dark and grim and he never fails to slam the accelerator all the way to the floor.
Once, King said about his own writing, “I’m a salami writer. I try to write good salami, but you can’t sell it as caviar.” That may be so, but oh my: this is a hell of a salami sandwich, with fresh bread and ripe tomato and just a little vinaigrette. As the tension builds — as the thugs in town take over, as the strong take from the weak, as the atmosphere under the Dome becomes fouler, as we discover secrets about the townspeople like evil birthday surprises — I squirmed. I just couldn’t bear it. I so wanted it to be different, but I could see that it was developing exactly as it must. I even liked the reason, eventually revealed, for the Dome’s presence — despite the fact that it’s fantastic, it didn’t feel like a deus ex machina to me. King is trying to say something about the way we treat each other — he creates a hothouse (literally) where the knots of human frailty tangle faster, but he knows that in human life, the blood is always going to hit the wall at one point or another. The question is whether or not we can grow up and find pity, if not love. I think he leaves it an open question.
I haven’t thought that some of King’s recent novels (Duma Key, Cell) were his best work, and I wondered if he’d gone off his stride a bit. But I loved Under the Dome. It’s a big investment of time — almost 1100 pages — but it was worth it: King is at his best when he’s allowed a large canvas and many characters, in my opinion (The Stand, The Talisman, the epic gunslinger series.) He also does wonderful things with a locked-room situation — just look at The Shining. This novel is horror, but human horror; fantasy, but realistic fantasy. It gripped me completely, and engaged me, and touched me, and made me angry and sad and happy. It did everything I want my salami to do.