Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Julia Shumway and Jackie Wettington have something in common: a crush on Colonel James O. Cox, whom they consider good-looking (Julia) and forceful (Jackie). For her part, Rose Twitchell prefers CNN’s Wolfe Blitzer, who “can,” as far as she’s concerned, “eat crackers in my bed anytime” he wishes (765). King’s own admiration for the journalist is clear, as is his respect for CNN. Everyone, it appears, from the patrons of Dippy’s Roadhouse and the clientele of Sweetbriar Rose restaurant watch the news channel, as does Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie, the novel’s antagonist. Any newscasts that occur during Under the Dome’s action are those that are transmitted by CNN. Even the hospital staff listen to CNN. It’s tuned in, with John Roberts broadcasting, when Rusty Everett has his run-in with Big Jim. Indeed, on the rare occasion that King refers at all to his beloved CNN’s chief rival, FOX News, it is with derision. For example, when one of the FOX News team dares to ask Colonel Cox a question during the press conference that the military man calls, one of King’s characters is delighted to see the journalist put in his place. The colonel has just told the press corps that the Army has “established a no-go-zone around the Dome” because of a concern that “the Dome might have” unrecognized “harmful effects” in addition to the hazards that it is known to possess:
“Are you talking about radiation, Colonel?” someone called.The reader is apt to note, with dismay, that King apparently does believe, after all, in a simple, black-and-white world in which the good guys are his guys (Wolf Blitzer, Anderson Cooper, Barbara Starr, John Roberts) and the bad guys are not. It is regrettable that someone who’s written so many books for so long, about so many issues, albeit through the medium of fiction, rather than as a journalist, would still perceive politics, journalism, social, and military matters in such an unsophisticated manner.
Cox froze him with a glance, and when he seemed to consider the reporter properly chastised (not Wolfie, Rose was pleased to see, but that half-bald, no-spin yapper from FOX News), he went on (762).
Like his character, Linda Everett, he apparently believes that “there are sides“--two of them--in news reporting, at least, just as it is clear that he has definitely chosen his side. Obviously, King has every right to take sides--Under the Dome is his novel, after all, and its world is his world--but the reader who doesn’t share his biases is apt to resent his arrogance in assuming that CNN is respectable and that FOX News is the home of “yappers.” Moreover, such a reader is likely to wonder how such biases affect the thought processes of his characters, one of whom admits to having an almost romantic crush on Blitzer. Is one reading a liberal/Democrat novel or a non-partisan novel? If it’s not necessary to insert a particular political point of view into the story, one has to wonder why King does so. The term “self-indulgent” comes to mind, as it does, in the reading of such novels as Lisey’s Story and Duma Key. Please, Mr. King, the reader might want to plead, especially if he or she is a moderate, a conservative, an independent, or a Republican, just tell the story; a paean to CNN and the liberal point of view is not needed or particularly desired.
During “CNN BREAKING NEWS,“ Colonel Cox‘s press conference is announced. The colonel has called the conference to make life difficult for Big Jim and to frustrate the selectman’s push for increased political power as he, like Rahm Emmanuel, seeks to take full advantage of the crisis represented by the mysterious dome’s descent over the isolated town of Chester’s Mill, Maine. He does so by announcing a Dome Visitors’ Day and by calling upon Big Jim to answer such questions from the press corps (or from those who are allowed to ask questions), such as whether there are “any plans to add a press conference” (asked by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer); why Big Jim, rather than Colonel Barbara, is in charge under the dome (asked by Wolf Blizer); whether Big Jim would bother to attend such a press conference when he is reportedly involved in criminal activities or “financial mismanagement” (asked by NBC’s Lester Holt); whether it is true that Colonel Barbara has been arrested for serial murders (asked by CBS’ Rita Braver); and whether Barbie could have been “jailed to keep him from taking control as the President ordered” (asked by PBS’ Ray Suarez). (No questions are accepted from FOX News representatives. Apparently, Colonel Cox found the one about radiation impertinent.)
Following the press conference that Julia, Jackie, Rose, and others of Barbie’s supporters watch at Sweetbriar Rose, King’s omniscient narrator transports the reader to the jail, where Barbie is allowed to interact with Deputy Manuel Ortega, lest the reader forget completely about the passive protagonist. In this scene, Barbie comes off as even weaker and more ineffective than he has seemed so far. In fact, during the scene when he was shown as willing to drink from the cell’s toilet bowl rather than to faint from dehydration and the omniscient narrator shared with the reader Barbie’s past training in black ops, hand-to-hand combat, and interrogation techniques, referencing his service in Iraq, Barbie, who single-handedly bested four tough thugs in the parking lot outside Dippy’s Roadhouse, seemed as rough and ready as John Rambo.
Since then, however, much of the military toughness of the colonel has seemingly dulled. He’s been in jail since page 533, mostly being verbally and physically abused and subjected to the childish pranks of his jailers (who have salted his drinking water, for example, and contaminated his cereal with spit and boogers). He’s succeeded in very little otherwise, except to have stashed his pocketknife inside his bunk’s mattress. During this scene, Ortega, upset by Colonel Cox’s press conference (and, no doubt, by Wolf Blitzer’s questions), threatens Barbie with his .45, leaving Barbie shaken and sweating: “Barbie leaned back against the wall and let out a breath. There was sweat on his forehead. The hand he lifted to wipe it off was shaking” (768).
Barbie looks weaker yet because of the reader’s inevitable comparison of him, the passive protagonist, with Big Jim Rennie, the active antagonist. While, it may be argued, Barbie is--or can be--tough and is courageous, and that he has advanced hand-to-hand and perhaps martial arts skills, he seems to lack the passion for goodness that Big Jim has for evil. Big Jim is a determined, relentless adversary, who uses imagination, audacity, and intelligence to pursue his goals. He is also courageous and resourceful, organized and efficient, confident and defiant. A natural leader, Big Jim commands loyalty, inspires both respect and fear, and exhibits political acumen. Although he is contemptuous of others, seeing them as weak or dependent and he is involved in crime, including not only the manufacture and distribution of methamphetamine, but also murder, Big Jim inspires the reader’s grudging respect in the same way that a Mafia godfather or a third-world strongman might do. He is glamorous, impressive, and powerful, a commanding figure with genuine presence. The passive Barbie, although he has shown that he can fight and is mentally tough as well as physically strong, doesn’t seem to be nearly as imposing as the villainous Big Jim.
Barbie comes off even less heroic when his passivity is juxtaposed to physician assistant Rusty Everett’s confrontation with Big Jim Rennie as he checks on his patient’s condition following Big Jim’s admittance to the hospital for treatment of his arrhythmia. Rusty has already confronted Big Jim once, in the selectman’s office, demanding an account as to what became of the propane that was stolen from the hospital, extracting from Big Jim the promise to investigate the matter, which, along with Big Jim’s decision to shut down his illegal drug operation, results in the return of two stolen tanks. Now, the courageous, if naïve, Rusty confronts the politician about a much more serious matter, declaring “I know you killed Coggins” (778), telling him about the baseball stitch marks he has seen on the Reverend Coggins’ face, which match those on the gold-plated baseball in Big Jim’s office, and demanding that Big Jim and Andy Sanders “step down” and allow Third Selectman Andrea Grinnell to “take over” the government of Chester’s Mill. However, Rusty crosses the line, morally and legally, when he threatens to withhold lifesaving medication from his patient if Big Jim refuses to “step down.” Unfortunately, Rusty is no match for his unscrupulous and murderous foe, who has concealed Deputy Freddy Denton and his bodyguard Special Deputy Carter Thibodeau in his hospital room’s bathroom. Having heard Rusty threaten to withhold the drugs that would keep Big Jim alive unless the politician agrees to resign from office, they are able to charge Rusty with extortion. In addition, they add the trumped-up charges of resisting arrest and attempted murder. They also allege that their prisoner, Colonel Barbara, or “Barbie,” “put him up to it” (782). After ordering Freddy to retrieve his cellular telephone, which Rusty had pocketed, Big Jim steps on Rusty’s left hand, seemingly breaking three of his fingers. (Actually, they are dislocated, although the fifth metacarpal of his hand is broken.) The physician’s assistant is then jailed, three cells down from Barbie, and the contrast between the assertive medic and the passive soldier is made even more striking, as, despite extreme pain, Rusty pulls his dislocated fingers, except for the pinkie, back into place, even managing to joke about his condition as he does so, saying he needs to “fix” his middle finger, as he “may need it” to flip off Big Jim and his cronies (788). Although Rusty no doubt acted rashly, both times that he confronted Big Jim (as he did when he seized the dome genberator), he has hardly made the situation any worse than it already is. The question is whether Barbie, jailed for over 250 pages now, has made anything better.
In any case, concerned that the jail is bugged, Barbie mouths the news to Rusty that, tomorrow night, a rescue is to be mounted, intelligence of which Rusty is already aware. Barbie adds, still mouthing the words, that they will require a safe house in which to stay following their escape, and Rusty thinks that, “thanks to Joe McClatchey and his friends. . . he had that part covered” (789).
King is a master storyteller with a long history of writing bestsellers, so it seems unlikely that he would be unaware of the apparent passivity of his jailed soldier. Barbie was promoted to the rank of colonel as the president’s “inside man.” He has displayed impressive combat skills in his fight against the four thugs who attacked him outside Dippy’s Roadhouse. He can be resourceful (he hid his pocketknife inside the jailhouse bunk’s mattress and drinks from a toilet bowl), and he is trained in close combat, interrogation, and black ops skills. He is respected by Colonel Cox, a “forceful” man. However, King’s having kept him in jail for a fourth of his novel, wherein he’s the frequent butt of jokes and jibes and has been physically assaulted and threatened with death on several occasions as well, makes Barbie seem more pitiful than admirable, as does Rusty’s manly, take-charge conduct, juxtaposed to Barbie’s apparent acquiescence to his foes. It will take extreme acts of heroism before the end of the story for Barbie to redeem himself as the hero whose past training, experience, and action has led the reader to believe he is capable of being. Perhaps King can pull it off. After all, he is a master storyteller with a long history of writing bestsellers. Still, the reader wonders, which is, in its own way, another, if rather peculiar, form of suspense.