I have always liked Stephen King. So many people see him as a schlocky pulpy horror writer but I honestly can’t think of one book that is JUST that. Actually, no, okay, Cell was one of those books. That was great. But anyway, especially in what we have to call his “later phase” – post car crash or so – he has written some of the most affecting modern English novels of the last twenty years. Bag of Bones started it and The Dark Tower series (while absolutely great) stands outside of this grouping – books like Cell, Lisey’s Story, and Duma Key. These books are just excellent pieces of literature.
This isn’t meant to be a case for Stephen King as The Great American Author, though I increasingly believe that he is. It’s just going to seem like one, because this massive tome (1074 pages…) is without doubt one of the best novels of the last ten years and possibly the most piercing look into how average Americans live in today’s world that I’ve ever read. It takes its sweet time (the page count is evidence) but at the same time the book never feels slow. The entire thing takes place in about a week and by the end of it, the reader feels about as tired as the characters. While these individuals are less affecting and memorable than some of King’s other creations (I’m sorry, but I can’t imagine I’m going to remember Dale Barbara or Julia Shumway like I remember Danny Torrance or Randall Flagg – though Big Jim Rennie is the exception as I will never forget him… but more on him later), they’re still very real. They’re all just normal people and there are a lot of them. It is a sprawling cast, with some characters who take up only a brief flash and some who we follow through the entire Dome event. Its King’s dialogue between people that always strikes me the most – he has a very distinct styling and while sometimes he can be guilty of a real clunker of a line, the balance is well in the positive. His repetition of certain things, too, is wonderful – the location, just North of Castle Rock and just south of TR-90 (KASHWAK NO-FO) is classic King territory; the number 19 appears a few times (including in add-up-all-those-numbers-HEY-its-19 moments); direct addresses to the reader; the literal repetition of a line, usually from a song; moments where the narrator (King, really – he’s different) zips us around and lets us take in all the action at once as though from above to let us catch our breaths and see the big picture. It’s all classic King but it is done so effectively here. “It’s a small town and we all support the team.”
The plot itself is pretty suspend-your-disbelief, especially when you hit the somewhat ridiculous denouement. But it isn’t about the Dome and where it came from – that’s why King gets away with a somewhat cop-out-y resolve. It’s about what happens UNDER the Dome (get it?) and how the people react. It is the story of how men like Big Jim Rennie – Bush/Cheney types, who hate Obama (and his “terrorist middle name”) and by golly LOVE JESUS! – can brainwash people into becoming mindless tow-the-line syncophants. Its the story of how those with a brain need to use it to stop men like that, before they get too out of hand. There are a few allusions to Hitler and they aren’t far from the truth, though Rennie is a little more Russian than German in his dictatorial style. The book is about the lengths those in power will go to in order to keep that power – the freedoms they’ll curtail and the lies they’ll institute. Its about the lengths the few remaining souls will go to in order to try and protect their freedom and check such tyrants. Rennie? He’s a used car salesman and Second Selectman of the town… and yet he has that classic King evil in him. It isn’t a supernatural evil, no – it is “the evil that lurks in the heart of man” and it is on full display in Rennie.
Do I wish that the other characters had been a little more real? Yes. Barbie’s whole Iraq thing is glossed so much it skips off the page and out of your head in moments. Julia seems like two disparate characters combined. The kids were cool kids but no one actually talks like that. It was some of the supporting characters, the small-town rednecky types who take over the police force… the Chef… they were all stronger, for some reason, than the “main” characters. I get the sense that the scope of the novel – the entire concept of the Dome itself – really curtailed any pre-Dome development beyond what was absolutely necessary. Still, like I said, most of the characters are relatively forgettable.
Spoiler Policy says I can’t talk about the ending yet (I should make a more coherent post on that. I think I can’t talk about it yet… let’s go with yes.) but I’ll just say that the resolution is the point where people will attack this book. They will belittle it, they will write it off, and they will ignore it. That’s a shame really, because while it IS weak and a little silly… it shouldn’t matter. The power of what happens under the Dome is so much more important. Would it have been a better ending if ___________? Personally, yes – but then we wouldn’t have the hope that this ending does bring.
King ends the book, as he does, with a note. At the end, he addresses us in that style, that wonderful title: Constant Reader. I smile every time King calls me that – because I am and I will be. He is my friend, through the novels that he writes. I am his Constant Reader. I will go down defending him and his works and enjoying every (well… not every. most) damn one of them. This is one of the best books of the year, of the decade, maybe of my lifetime. Its American everyday life at its most fucked up in the age of post-Bush. It is brilliant.