What's more terrifying than the invisible, impermeable, immovable dome that suddenly cages a chunk of Maine countryside in Stephen King's Under the Dome? • The town beneath it. • Under the Dome has elements of extrahuman mystery, but the most frightening creatures in this frightening book are the human beings who find themselves trapped like ants under a heedless child's magnifying glass and, in many cases, respond with cruelties of their own. • The book's breathless, surreal opening chapters eerily invoke the confusion and dread of 9/11 as the dome descends without warning on a beautiful fall day. Its existence is announced only by the objects it slices in two — a gardener's arm, a wandering woodchuck — and the planes and cars and flocks of birds that crash into it. • The dome encloses precisely the picturesque town of Chester's Mill, population about 2,000, and both the stunned townspeople inside and the powers that be outside scramble to figure out what to do. They soon learn that nothing — not a speeding log truck, not a boy's ill-considered bullet, not top-secret military methods — makes so much as a dent in the transparent barrier. • No one gets in or out, and no one knows why. Power is cut off, neither rain nor groundwater can get in, and so little air gets through the dome that plants begin dying and the sky turns yellow within days. And the dome has dramatic effects on some townspeople — children begin to have seizures and visions, and people soon learn that if you have a pacemaker, touching the dome will be the last thing you ever do. • If you think all these salt-of-the-earth New England folk pull together and make the best of the situation, you've forgotten who wrote this book. Within days, the town has split into us versus them. • Heading up one faction, whether anyone likes it or not, is Big Jim Rennie, local used car dealer (specializing in Hummers) and second selectman of Chester's Mill. He's a ruthless, self-absorbed, greedy bully, and his favorite tool for keeping folks in line is Andy Sanders, the town's first selectman, an accommodating pharmacist, expert glad-hander and generally clueless but likable guy. If their relationship reminds you of a recent presidential administration, King means it to).
Rennie cobbles up his own police force composed mainly of hard-drinking teenagers, including his son, Junior, who is given to murderous rages. Rennie, who's so pious he refuses to cuss, is concerned with keeping strict order in town, but he also has his own interests to protect, notably his involvement with the Chef, a meth cooker maddened by his own product.
On the other side of the versus is an unlikely but resourceful crew of medical personnel, skater kids and their moms, vacationing academics, veteran cops, small-business owners and a guy called Barbie.
Dale Barbara is an Iraq War veteran who's trying to forget that part of his life. He's been working as a cook in Chester's Mill but gotten tired of being bullied by Junior and his pals; Barbie was steps away from leaving town when the dome came down.
Though he has no heroic ambitions, thanks to input from the world outside, Barbie finds himself going up against Rennie. It's an increasingly bad spot to be in, as the town's quaint facade crumbles, civil liberties are crushed and food riots, rapes, suicides and murders escalate.
Imagine 9/11, Katrina and global warming all happening at once — and you can't get away. Just when you think things can't get any worse, King turns it up to 11 with an apocalyptic town hall meeting that makes last summer's round of acrimonious yapfests look like kindergarten squabbles — and that's far from the worst of it.
Under the Dome is King at the top of his form. He manages an intricate plot with seamless skill, he brings a large cast of characters vividly to life, and he puts the pedal to the metal with a story that charges through more than 1,000 pages with a constant fusillade of surprises.
In this age of slagging on the media, King offers another surprise by treating journalists with respect. Not only is Julia Shumway, determined editor and publisher of the local newspaper, one of the dome good guys; TV news, especially CNN, gets plenty of props in Dome.
The mystery of the dome's origins and the problem of penetrating it frame Under the Dome, but the true subject of this splendid book is the human reaction to disaster: who becomes a brute, who finds the courage not to, who survives and who, sometimes heartbreakingly, does not.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435. She blogs on Critics Circle at blogs.tampabay.com/arts.