In Stephen King's "Under the Dome," Chester's Mill, Maine, is suddenly transformed into a cruel version of an ant farm - or maybe, more accurately, a miniature "Lord of the Flies" - when an invisible, impenetrable dome slaps down over the whole town.
At nearly 1,100 pages, you'll have to forgive me if it took a little while to make it all the way through Stephen King's latest novel, "Under the Dome."
Lengthy enough to rival "The Stand" as King's biggest book, the story begins when, one bright fall day, an invisible, impenetrable dome slaps down over the little town of Chester's Mill, Maine, causing strolling citizens to unwittingly smash their noses and, in some cases, causing explosions and death.
After residents adjust to the initial shock, the town fathers begin trying to organize themselves to weather the storm. The Army attempts to make contact with an ex-officer - Dale Barbara, the protagonist, currently working as a short-order cook - who is trapped under the Dome. The military wants Barbara to be their point man inside.
But that doesn't sit well with the town's second selectman - a unique villain if ever there was one: local used-car salesman Big Jim Rennie, who by all appearances is a wonderful, sincere, churchgoing, God-fearing hometown guy ("You'll be wheelin' when Big Jim is DEALIN'!" he shouts in his radio commercials). But he has a dark-hearted lust for power and a dirty secret to protect, and as life under the Dome begins to look more and more permanent, he begins to indulge both vices. Barbara got into a little scrap with Big Jim's son before the Dome came down, and Rennie thinks he might have found the perfect boogeyman to help him carry out his mission, which he is always quick to note, "is for the good of the town."
"Under the Dome" works very well on two fronts. First, as a sort of "Twin Peaks" meets "Lord of the Flies" scenario, King elegantly peels the veneer off this sleepy New England town to show what some of its residents are really capable of when, quite literally, what happens under the Dome stays under the Dome.
Secondly, as an ecological morality tale, King gradually builds tension and suspense as the environment begins to affect the Dome and its new residents: There is no electricity, so the town is running on hundreds of propane-fueled generators ... pollen is beginning to stick to the dome, causing the outside world to grow blurry and hazy ... the air is starting to stink ... it's getting hotter.
And no one can escape.
To be sure, there are otherworldly elements involved, but the real meat of the story is a study of people who are trapped, confused and under pressure. Unlike "The Mist," which analyzed the hysteria of people trapped and blinded, "Under the Dome" lets those trapped see, and even communicate with, the outside world. King paints an emotionally wrenching, desperately bleak portrait of human suffering as conditions in the Dome begin to reach their worst.
Is it King's best? No. Despite its epic length, it does not reach the sprawling, ultra-detailed level of his "Dark Tower" series or "The Stand." It's not really a fair comparison: Tolstoy probably wrote plenty of great stuff after "War and Peace," too ... unless you're comparing it all to "War and Peace."
Page 2 of 2 - Ultimately, the climax does not quite match the tense buildup, but even at 1,000-plus pages, it's a pretty quick read, and a good one.