Riding With The King: Under The Dome (2009)

I’ll be honest, I’m shocked to be writing this review so soon after purchasing Stephen King’s Under The Dome just over three weeks ago. This book is a monster at 1072 pages and I am at best a slow reader, but I guess that’s a testament to how taut and compelling I found the story.

If you haven’t read, don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything without giving off the warning. The basic plot of the book revolves around a small town called Chester’s Mill in Maine, that, one day, out of nowhere, finds itself completely surrounded by a clear, impenetrable dome. But, Chester’s Mill isn’t exactly what it seems and you probably couldn’t have picked a worse town to cover in a dome. There’s a lot going on there, most of which I will not get into, but all of it is the result of Big Jim Rennie, a local politician who says he’s thinking of the town and God, but is really only thinking of himself.

It’s kind of like every movie you’ve ever seen where a jerk owns a town. He’s got his own goon squad and does what he wants until the dashing hero comes in and mixes things up. It’s Patrick Swayze in the awesome Road House and either Joe Don Boxer, The Rock or Kevin Sorbo depending on which Walking Tall your watching. In this case, the hero of sorts is Dale “Barbie” Barbara an traveler who was leaving town on the day the dome appeared after running into some trouble with Rennie’s son and his friends. He also happens to have served in the military, which should prove helpful right?

Much of the tension and dread I felt while reading this book came because I was worried about bad things happening to Barbie or one of his compatriots. Being under the dome is bad enough, but having a calculating, cunning and cruel man like Rennie moving townspeople around like chess pieces does not make the situation any better. I have a thing about being helpless and always find stories where a person is made to be that way highly effective and disturbing. That happens on several different levels throughout the book, which is yet another reason why it grabbed me and didn’t let go.

Let’s label this SPOILER TERRITORY. I didn’t and still haven’t read any of the criticisms of the book. My main one is that some of the dialog–especially anything said by the teenager members of the town–sounded not just weird but jarringly bad. But, hey, maybe kids in small town Maine talk like a slightly toned down version of Scooby Doo’s pal Shaggy. Anyway, I did hear that a lot of people didn’t like the ending and I think I understand why on two possible counts. First, I’m sure the way everything was resolved didn’t sit well with some people. I thought it was a well crafted, well seeded and well executed method that I did not see coming, so for those reasons, I liked it. The other element that I would imagine rubbed people the wrong way was how they might have felt cheated because our big bad Rennie and dashing Dale Barbara never got to really face off. Well, them’s the breaks, I guess. Again, the explosion was telegraphed and hinted at all along, so it’s not like it came out of left field or anything. I kind of liked it because it’s how reality works: all kinds of plans are in motion and sometimes they collide in spectacularly explosive ways.

STILL SPOILERS I do wonder if all the build-up to the ending was actually earned by the actual ending. As I said, I was glued to this book, but I finished the last 100 or so pages in sporadic, stolen moments over the Thanksgiving holiday, so my intake of the information was choppy. I thought the final attempt on the box at the end was pretty intense itself but nowhere near as much so as when I felt like Rennie’s guys were going to get Barbie. It kind of ends before it ends with there only being so many options. With the town destroyed, the air polluted and the bad guys dead, they either live or they die, they either get out or they don’t. With all the other dangers, options and people removed, the focus might not please everyone. I’m glad he ended it the way he did, a downer ending would have been rough after all that.

Okay, we’re out of the spoiler zone. When I first picked this book up for a few bucks at Barnes & Noble (check next time you’re there, I recommend giving it a read) I was worried that it would be overly stuffed with nonsense. I had a similar fear in the beginning when King was seemingly cataloging various people and animals effected by the dome appearing. What I didn’t realize then was that the author was setting me up for the rest of the story which, while mostly about a few key people, was really about an entire small town trying to deal with a very large threat. Yes, the story could have completely followed Barbie and Rennie, but it would not be nearly as rich or as engrossing of a read. I haven’t read a ton of Stephen King books and usually never close together (though I did just read Running Man back in April and have a copy of his short story book Skeleton Crew sitting around near a copy of Misery), so I’m not an expert, but I don’t remember being this engrossed by any of his books with the exception of The Shining, which I REALLY wish I had gotten back from my co-worker at the bagel shop before he got fired. I did attempt to read the equally huge It, but never got close to finishing. I think this is a great effort by a great talent that’s worth reading, especially if you can get it on the super-cheap at B&N like I did!

Let me know what you thought of the book. I’m curious what the complaints about the ending were. If you’re going to comment directly and spoilers, though, please note that for readers. Thanks!

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