Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Stephen King has been writing for a long time. His first novel, Carrie, was published in 1974. A natural-born storyteller, King has also learned a multitude of storytelling tricks over the years. I’ve mentioned a few already, in previous posts concerning Under the Dome. Here’s another: misdirection, or what I like to call the bait-and-switch technique.
Car dealers like Big Jim Rennie know and practice this trick, offering a limited number of low-price new cars to the public but announcing, when potential customers arrive, that all these vehicles have been sold; however, for just a little more (usually thousands of dollars), the dealership can put the buyer in a similar car. The low-price model is the bait; the switch occurs when the dealer offers to sell a different model for a higher price.
The bait-and-switch scene in Under the Dome to which I refer takes place shortly after the riot at Food Town (the “food fight,” as I like to call it). (Incidentally, the reader learned that the purpose of the riot was to provide the basis for beefing up the town’s police force by as many as eight additional special deputies; Big Jim wants his own well-armed militia, just as President Obama has called for his own private civilian police force, which, the president says, should be as well armed as the U. S. military.) During the riot, one of the thugs who works for Big Jim threw a rock that smashed Georgia Roux’s jaw and knocked out a quarter of her teeth. Torie McDonald collected the teeth and took them to Dr. Joe Boxer, the only dentist in Chester’s Mill, hoping that he could reimplant them. However, Joe, who works strictly on a cash basis, refuses to cooperate, unless he’s paid in advance, as always, for his services, even though he was just treated free of charge by physician’s assistant Rusty Everett for minor injuries that he’d sustained during the food fight. Joe is more concerned with getting home so he can stash the basketful of frozen waffles he’s stolen from the supermarket during the looting of the store than he is with helping a fellow resident of Chester’s Mill. Rusty, Colonel Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara, and high school history teacher Chaz Bender try to persuade Joe to perform the operations, even to the point of threatening him with violence. This incident comprises the bait portion of the bait-and-switch scene. The reader expects to see this conflict through to its conclusion, looking forward to seeing whether and how Rusty, Barbie, and Chaz persuade Joe to do the right thing.
The switch portion occurs as Chief Peter Randolph, accompanied by Deputies Freddy Denton, Jackie Wettington, and Linda Everett and Special Deputies Junior Rennie, Frank DeLesseps, Carter Thibodeau (the last two of whom are among the same men who, assisted by Georgia Roux, beat and raped Samantha Bushey) arrive, weapons drawn, to arrest Barbie--seven police officers to arrest one man! To prevent his being killed for “resisting arrest,” Barbie immediately raises his hands, surrendering, and keeps them raised even after Thibodeau charges forward and punches the captive in the stomach, doubling him over. The chief announces, “I’m arresting you for the murders of Angela McCain, Dorothy Sanders, Lester A. Coggins, and Brenda Perkins.” Angela and Dorothy (“Dodee”) were killed by Junior; Lester and Brenda, by Junior’s father, Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie, but Barbie is being framed for their murders. The colonel had anticipated his arrest on one trumped-up charge or another, although it is doubtful that he suspected he’d be taken into custody for the murders of four individuals.
The use of situational irony, which is what the bait-and-switch technique really amounts to, takes the reader by surprise enhancing the effect of the follow-on situation that is presented in lieu of the one that the initial situation suggests will occur. In this scene, King demonstrates that he is adroit at its use. So completely has he drawn the reader into the conflict between Joe, Rusty, Barbie, and Chaz, concerning the replacement of Georgia’s teeth that the reader is unprepared for the arrival and arrest of Barbie by Chester’s Mill’s finest (although Barbie himself has foreshadowed this incident several times well before this scene takes place).
As I mentioned in a previous post, the central theme of this novel seems to be provided in a quotation of Jimi Hendrix: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” I also mentioned King’s tendency to divide his characters into two camps, so that there is a dichotomy of “us” against “them.” Often, in the past, such dualities have consisted of children vs. adults, of Democrats vs. Republicans, of women vs. men, of religious folk vs. secular folk, and although some such divisions continue in Under the Dome, King’s latest novel shows a maturation of his thinking concerning politics, religion, and social issues. He seems to have come to an understanding that the world is not so easily divisible into good and evil, right and wrong, acceptable and unacceptable. He seems to have developed a broader, deeper view of life, in which even a Republican like Julia Shumway can be heroic; where adults can recognize children’s talents and treat them as individuals rather than as pesky stereotypes; where religious faith need not be grotesque and absurd; and where men and women, despite the battle of the sexes, can battle alongside one another, for either good or evil.
In the past, King has largely defined evil as a threat to the community. Many of his novels, from ’Salem’s Lot onward, have an invasion plot, in which the menace arrives from outside, to infect and corrupt a small town which, although not perfect, not Eden, has been, nevertheless, a good place to raise one’s children or in which to grow up. In Under the Dome, the evil doesn’t come from outside; the evil is already in Chester’s Mill, chiefly in the form of Big Jim Rennie, but in many others as well, including his son Junior; Pete Randolph, Deputy Frank Denton, and their special deputies Georgia Roux, Frank DeLesseps, Melvin Searles, Carter Thibodeau; in the drug addict Phil Bushey (“The Chef”) who abandoned his wife Samantha and their child Little Walter; in the apathetic dentist, Joe Boxer; and in Big Jim’s fellow selectmen, Andy Sanders and, to a lesser degree, the pain pills-addicted Andrea Grinnell. Through these individuals, King defines, or redefines, evil. Evil is a love of power, such as afflicts Big Jim Rennie. Evil is bullying others, a pastime, with fatal consequences, enjoyed by Junior Rennie and his cronies. Evil is Phil Bushey’s abandonment of his wife and son. Evil is emotional, physical, and sexual assault, such as Frank DeLesseps, Melvin Searles, Carter Thibodeau, with Georgia Roux’s assistance, committed against Samantha Bushey. Evil is siding with evil because it benefits oneself, as both Andy
Sanders and the Reverend Lester Coggins do in cooperating with Big Jim in his political and criminal undertakings. Evil is Joe Boxer’s callous indifference to human suffering, unless, of course, the one who is suffering can pay up front and in cash for Joe’s dental services. Evil is the love for power or self-aggrandizement, which frustrates the power of love.
At the end of the bait-and-switch scene, one of King’s characters summarizes the distinction between good and evil that is foundational to Under the Dome, and the difference is entirely pragmatic, even, perhaps, quantifiable at times. Goodness is helping others; evil is hurting others. Although philosophers, theologians, and social scientists may argue about what it means, exactly, to help someone else and what it means, exactly, to hurt someone else (can perceived help really be harmful, for example, as when one enables another person to remain in a condition, such as alcoholism or drug addiction, that is injurious to his or her health?) and whether, to help someone else, it may be necessary to also hurt him or her (as dentists and physicians must hurt patients on occasion in order to treat them), King’s distinction, voiced by Rusty Everett, concerning Barbie’s medical treatments of wounded rioters and looters, seems a good starting point for such a basic understanding of morality:
[Deputy Linda Everett says, to her husband, physician’s assistant Eric, or “Rusty,”] “Four people, Eric--didn’t you hear? He killed them, and he almost certainly raped at least two of the women. I helped take them out of the hearse at Bowie’s. I saw the stains.”Perhaps, in this exchange, King suggests another instance of evil. Linda is confronted with two versions of Barbie: helpful or hurtful. The former is supported by the testimony of her husband, a physician’s assistant whose dedication to the community is unquestioned, if not unquestionable. The other version, that of the hurtful Barbie, is supported by the allegations of Chief Randolph and the likes of Special Deputy Frank DeLesseps, and Junior Rennie. The only evidence specified against Barbie is the discovery of his Army “dog tags in Angie McCain’s hand.” The evidence is enough to convince Linda, but not enough to persuade Rusty, who finds their discovery in the hand of one of Barbie’s alleged victims “convenient.” The willingness or unwillingness to believe allegations against someone is a matter of faith, and the conclusions to which one comes concerning such allegations is often a matter of choice rooted in human understanding, or in the understanding of human nature, and there is yet another of King’s divisions of “us” and “them” involved in this matter, as a brief discussion--or debate--between Linda and Rusty, as Barbie is being “hustled out to the Chief’s car and locked in the backseat with his hands still cuffed behind him,” makes clear:
Rusty shook his head. “I just spent the morning with him, watching him help people, not hurt them” (526).
She stopped. “What’s wrong with you?”Although some of King’s dualistic divisions are more superficial than others and are based upon stereotypes, the moral distinction he makes at the end of his bait-and-switch scene stands out as one that is profound. Although not entirely free of difficulties and more or less debatable, his stance that one can determine good from evil based upon whether a person’s behavior is helpful or harmful to others is worthy of serious thought, as is his suggestion that choice itself, including the choice to believe or to disbelieve the potentially injurious allegations that people make against others as an action which can be hurtful and, therefore, evil, if it is based upon deceit, ignorance, naiveté, the need to please others, self-aggrandizement, an uncritical acceptance of others’ statements or evidence, or any of a number of other false foundations, is good or evil. The surety for such decisions, King suggests, is not merely knowledge of the facts (or alleged facts), the evidence, as it were, but also of the person. Linda is wrong to believe that Barbie is guilty of murder and rape because of the (planted) evidence she’s made aware of, whereas Rusty is right to believe in Barbie’s innocence, despite such “evidence,” for he has worked alongside the man and has seen, with his own eyes, Barbie’s compassion, courage, and commitment to helping, not hurting, others.
“What’s wrong with you? Did you miss what just happened here?”
“Rusty, she was holding his dog tags!”
He nodded slowly. “Convenient, wouldn’t you say?”
Her face, which had been both hurt and hopeful, now froze. She seemed to notice that her arms were still held out to him, and she lowered them.
“Four people,” she said, “three beaten almost beyond recognition. There are sides, and you need to think about which one you’re on.”
“So do you, honey,” Rusty said (527).
As is often the case with King’s fiction, there is much more to the action than a moment’s chill or thrill. What King’s chief rival, Dean Koontz, says, not about Under the Dome, and not about morality, but about the exercise of the intellect, is true of human behavior in general and, as King indicates, helps to separate good from evil and right from wrong: “Some people think only intellect counts: knowing how to solve problems, knowing how to get by, knowing how to identify an advantage and seize it. But the functions of intellect are insufficient without courage, love, friendship, compassion and empathy.”