January 11, 2010

UNDER THE DOME (Review part 2)

by Stephen King
877 pages, Hodder & Stoughton, 2009

Review by Paul Fenton

Part 2:

When we last left our ensemble cast of neatly vacuum-sealed Yankees in Stephen King’s latest epic “Under the Dome” (read review part 1 here), a gigantic invisible and seemingly impenetrable barrier had sealed off the entire town of Chester’s Mill, Maine.

In the blue corner: the challenger, weighing in at whatever Gary Sinise happens to weigh when he plays the part in the five-part tele-movie due out in summer 2012 – Dale Barbara, ex-Army Captain and designated hero. In the red corner: the reigning Mussolini of the town – Big Jim Rennie, the town’s second selectman and car salesman. If I had to cast Big Jim right now I’d probably go for Alec Baldwin (who seems to be headed in the right direction, proportionally), so if you’re in need of a visual, there you go.

So far the key characters are falling pretty cleanly to one side or the other of the moral divide. Julia Shumway, the owner and editor of the local newspaper, has become Barbie’s number one; while Big Jim’s son Junior is lining himself up for the shadow position in the baddie camp.

Junior has problems. He gets bad headaches. Also, he doesn’t like Barbie because Barbie dared fight back when Junior and his buddies tried to ambush him. Also, he murdered two girls and keeps them in a pantry where he hangs out whenever he needs a break from the everyday rigours of living under a dome. Quality time, if you know what I mean. No, nothing like that, that would be sick – second base, maybe third, but no further.

Junior’s dislike of Barbie is championed by daddy Big Jim, who wanted Barbie out of town before the unfortunate woodchuck from chapter one took a dome in the back; and now that Barbie is sealed in with the rest of them, it doesn’t look like either of the Rennie lads are willing to let bygones be themselves. Barbie’s prospects aren’t improved by the abrupt deputising of Junior and his mates to the town’s police force to help keep order in the forecast coming turmoil. Of course these new deputies are certain to be the cause of a lot of said turmoil, but I think the omelette/egg argument is implied somewhere in there.

So, Chester’s Mill is completely cut off. There’s a group of power-hungry bully-boys who claim to represent the town, and who hold in physical contempt the morally upright folk and get carried away with their own authority. You’re probably thinking “kill the pig”, right? I thought that too, and might even have done so unprompted if King hadn’t planted the idea by having one of the characters voice the comparison for me in the early chapters.

The ingredients for conflict are handed a big fat Jalapeno in the form of a letter from the President himself (never explicitly named, but we know it’s Obama) confirming Barbie’s reinstatement to the armed forces and promotion to Colonel. The message is: Barbie’s in charge. Big Jim’s response runs along the lines of: tell it to the dome. Obama tries to tell it to the dome with a couple of cruise missiles, but they create barely more than a hot breeze inside the bubble.

What we don’t know yet is where the dome came from, not even a clue. I’m about a third of the way through at this point. The local priest (a habitual self-flagellator, of course) sees it as God’s work. The anti-establishment establishment thinks it has government written all over it. Is it man-made or is it supernatural?

But wait: a little girl in the throes of a petit mal seizure issues a cryptic warning. The same basic message is repeated by others, all in a state of seizure. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? No? Here’s a clue: “Eepa, eepa … trapped forever …”

I know I’d ruled out similarities to The Simpsons Movie in part one of this review, but I don’t believe in coincidence. I’m not crazy: everyone IS out to get me, there ARE listening devices hidden in my clothes, and the writers for The Simpsons Movie somehow hacked into Stephen King’s home network and stole his story ideas – or they read his thoughts, I haven’t fully committed to either theory just yet.


At least I think it’s a plot spoiler. At what point does a summary, or even a hook for that matter, become a spoiler? Hard to judge on a marathon story like this, but I thought it would be prudent to warn you.

Why is Big Jim so eager to maintain his stranglehold on the small town? Why is he so resistant to the notion of outside influence? Could it be … Yes, of course it could. Big Jim is running a crystal meth lab; and not just any meth lab, but one of the largest in the country, supplying the meth-heads of Boston and beyond. By implicating a number of influential townsfolk in the operation, Big Jim is able to gain far more control over the will of the people than by merely offering low, low prices on Toyotas. He has money, he has power, and he seems to think the dome has sealed all that in quite nicely. I’ve yet to reach the point in the story where he realises he can only make so much cash by selling meth to the residents of Chester’s Mill, but that shouldn’t be too far off.

Could the meth factory be the cause, or perhaps the catalyst, of the dome’s appearance? Is there a moralistic theme lurking? Remember what brought about the endomement of Springfield? That’s right, Homer dumping a huge silo of pig leavings into Lake Springfield, leavings which produced copious amounts of noxious methane gas. Methane, meth … I wonder.

And the idea of the quiet townsfolk running a meth lab – is it too much of a stretch to suggest this idea provided the inspiration for the television show “Breaking Bad”? Probably, but I’m willing to stretch that far and say Stephen! Look out! TV writers are stealing your thoughts!

I’m going to leave it there until I finish this thing, whereupon I’ll return for a part three wrap-up. If you don’t hear from me again, assume I’ve been rubbed out by the screenwriters’ guild.

Review Part 3 here.

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