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  • Louis Arata

Book Review: Under the Dome

Updated: Aug 17, 2020

Don't Read While There Is A Pandemic Going On.

A word of advice: You may not want to read Under the Dome while in the midst of a pandemic quarantine. 

Stephen King hits the ground running in his novel about Chester’s Mill, a town suddenly and inexplicably trapped inside an impenetrable dome. In less than a week, the residents endure a catastrophic failure in leadership and resources that only worsen their initial predicament. The outside world desperately wants to help, but nothing seems capable of breaking open the barrier.

The massive novel (just shy of 1100 pages) has an equally massive cast of characters. No worries about keeping the characters straight: King clearly establishes who the main actors are and who are the supporting characters. And with his typical style, he makes them relatable.

The main conflict revolves around who is in charge during this crisis. On one side is Big Jim Rennie, a used car dealer and the town’s second selectman. Rennie has always been the power behind the political administration, and the town seems to accept him as the default leader. On the other side is Dale Barbara, aka Barbie, a former Army lieutenant and currently a short-order cook at a restaurant. The U.S. president appoints Barbie as leader, but Rennie will have none of it. 

Rennie has Barbie arrested on trumped-up murder charges and thrown into jail. All the while, Rennie is expanding the police force into his own personal army. He plays on people’s fears by secretly sowing discord and violence throughout town.

As “Us versus Them” becomes the new norm of Chester’s Mill, a small band of renegades tries to figure out how to oust Rennie from his throne. This all unfolds against a rapidly accelerating timeline as Rennie grabs for more and more power.

There is an explanation for the dome, but in many respects that is not the point of the novel. King is fascinated by the inner workings of a community, in particular how individual personalities influence the course of events. In an interview, King stated that when he was writing the novel, he had George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in mind, and their response to 9/11 and the Iraq War: “Sometimes the sublimely wrong people can be in power at a time when you really need the rightpeople.” As King further states, Big Jim Rennie is a superb example of The Peter Principle.

As you may have guessed, I was reading Under the Dome during the COVID-19 crisis and the stay-at-home order. It was not the most soothing book to read while I was hearing daily examples of failures to control the coronavirus. As the current U.S. administration has repeatedly fumbled their handling of this crisis, it seems to echo Big Jim Rennie’s efforts to grab all the power and spread all the blame.

So, when I reached the novel’s climax, it was so much more chilling than I anticipated. Several times I had to set the book aside because it was too upsetting. Much like learning the daily numbers of infected COVID-19 patients and the catastrophic number of dead, world-wide and in the U.S. alone.

King keeps practically a breakneck pace throughout the book. Unlike his other long novels, like It or The Stand, this novel rarely has time to catch its breath. Admittedly, it took me four months to finish Under the Dome. Not because of its length. I am not daunted by long novels. No, it was simply difficult to pick up because the edition I had was so physically unwieldy in size. By the time I got a third of the way through, there was no turning back.

A page-turner? Yes. Daunting? Possibly. Chilling? Absolutely.

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