Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
In case the reader missed it, Stephen King once again has one of the characters of Under the Dome remind him or her that, now that Chester’s Mill has been isolated by the descent of a mysterious transparent dome, pretty much anything is possible. In answer to Julia Shumway’s question as to whether the town’s police force is likely to close down the publication of her newspaper, the novel’s hero, Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara, replies, “That’s not going to happen.” However, the omniscient narrator suggests that it may happen, that anything may happen: “But he wondered. If this went on long enough, he supposed every day in Chester’s Mill would become Anything Can Happen Day” (226).
Quite a few things do happen. After Rory Dinsmore blinds himself in an attempt to shatter the dome with a high-powered rifle shot, he dies in the operating room. His death is followed, thirty four minutes later, by that of the hospital’s chief surgeon, who dies of a heart attack. By presidential order, Barbie is drafted back into the Army and promoted to the rank of colonel. He is told to declare martial law and seize authority from the local government’s representatives, Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie included. Barbie convinces Brenda, the late police chief’s wife, to help him gain access to the town hall’s fallout shelter so that he can steal the Geiger counter stored therein , and she volunteers to assemble a contingent of others, herself and Third Selectman Andrea Grinnell joining Barbie to announce the news to the other selectmen.
And, oh, yes, the military has decided to launch a Cruise missile at the dome at 1300 hours (1:00 in the afternoon, civilian time); it is preprogrammed to impact against the barrier at an elevation of five feet just “where the Dome cuts Little Bitch Road” (249). The expected outcome? Either the missile will be repelled by the dome or much of the town will be obliterated, along with the dome itself.
Second Selectman Rennie (“Big Jim”) reluctantly accepts the president’s appointment of Colonel Dale Barbara (“Barbie”) as his “man on the spot,” and the commander-in-chief’s orders that Big Jim cooperate fully with Barbara--at least until Big Jim learns whether the missile will destroy the dome, as the military hopes.
Four of the town’s newly deputized special deputies, Mel Searles, Frankie DeLesseps, Carter Thibodeau, and Georgia Roux, visit Samantha (“Sammy”) Bushey, a woman whom DeLesseps claims sassed him earlier that day. Their ostensible mission is to teach Sammy to respect the police. In reality, they come to assault her, both physically and sexually.
Later that night, “Big Jim” murders the Reverend Lester Coggins when, taking Rory Disnmore’s blindness as a sign from God that he must confess his sins--and those of Big Jim--namely, their operation of a methamphetamine lab behind their church. Big Jim is assisted, after the fact, by his son Junior, who wraps the pastor’s corpse in a tarpaulin and secretes it with the bodies of Junior’s own victims, Angie McCain and Dodee Sanders. Ironically, Big Jim decides that he and his partners in crime should shut down their meth lab until the dome is destroyed.
Most of this section of the novel is devoted to chronicling the sociopolitical and emotional effects of the isolation that has descended upon the town of Chester’s Mill in the form of the transparent dome. However, this novel seems to represent a departure of sorts in the thinking of its author. Previously, King, a self-avowed liberal who enthusiastically supports left-wing causes and appears to consider the Republican party just short of demonic, seems to take a more moderate approach to politics. His protagonist’s major supporter is the Republican owner and editor of the local newspaper, Julia Shumway, whom King depicts as intelligent, fearless, and tenacious. On more than a few occasions, her fast thinking, courageous resistance to Big Jim Rennie saves Dale Barbara from being jailed or worse, and she is intent upon publishing the truth concerning both the events which transpire outside and inside the dome.
Published in January 2010, Under the Dome appeared before the Gulf Oil crisis that has tested Barack Hussein Obama’s competence in responding to a catastrophe even larger and more destructive than Hurricane Katrina. President Bush’s response to the latter was poor, to say the least, but most critics, including many Democrats, agree that President Obama’s response to the former has been much worse. The question of Obama’s competence as commander-in-chief is important to Under the Dome, an ecological novel, because it is President Obama who assumes command of the situation that is central to the novel--freeing the citizens of Chester’s Mill, Maine, from the mysterious barrier that has cut them off from the rest of the world. As King makes clear, the president who signs the executive order drafting and promoting Dale Barbara to U. S. Army colonel and putting him in charge as the federal government’s liaison with the local civilian authorities is signed by “the bastard. . . himself. . . using all three of his names, including the terrorist one in the middle [i. e., Hussein]” (270).
In the novel, Obama’s solution is to fire a Cruise missile at the dome. Given the outcome of Rory Dinsmore’s firing of his high-powered rifle at the barrier (the loss of his eye to a ricocheting bullet and no harm at all to the dome), Obama’s solution seems ill-advised, and, if it doesn’t work, Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie has sworn to take the president’s failure as an indication that he himself needs to retain authority. “It may work,” he agrees with Third Selectman Andrea Grinnell. On the other hand, he declares,
“if it doesn’t we’re on our own, and a commander in chief who can’t help his citizens isn’t worth a squirt of warm pee in a cold chamber pot, as far as I’m concerned! If it doesn’t work, and if they don’t blow us all to Glory, somebody is going to have to take hold in this town. Is it going to be some drifter the President taps with his magic wand, or is it going to be the elected officials already in place? (277).For Big Jim, the value of a leader lies in his or her ability to protect the people he serves, much as the chieftain of a band of warriors‘ value--and authority (as in Beowulf, for example)--lies in his ability to protect and conquer: “Do you know what a commander is, Andrea? Someone who merits loyalty and obedience because he can provide the resources to help those in need. It’s supposed to be a fair trade” (277).
It will be interesting to see whether the Cruise missile attack succeeds or fails. In the novel, as in actual life, much of President Obama’s title to “loyalty and obedience” seems to be predicated upon his ability to “provide the resources to help those in need.” Many consider his response to the Gulf Oil crisis conclusive proof that Obama lacks this ability, and the looming November election promises to unseat many incumbent Congressmen and Senators, especially of the Democratic persuasion, who support President Obama. If the fictional Obama’s handling of the dome crisis parallels his handling of the Gulf Oil crisis, it seems safe to say that Big Jim Rennie won’t be stepping down as one of “the elected officials already in place” in Chester’s Mill, Maine.
Whatever happens next in Under the Dome, this much, at least, seems fairly clear: like the rest of the country and its citizenry, King seems to have moved more toward the middle of the political spectrum, which is distrustful of politicians in general, at every level of authority, and he appears to consider Republicans human rather than demonic and Democrats as perhaps capable of the corruption, dishonesty, and abuse that, heretofore, he has reserved for members of the Grand Old Party.
So far, Christian fundamentalism hasn’t fared as well. With King’s bias against it in full swing, as shown by his characterization of the Reverend Lester Coggins as a primitive believer given to self-flagellation (with a Bible, no less) and the seeking after signs as well as hypocrisy, self-delusion, and even criminal activity. Whether the Congo Church and its pastor will fare any better than the leader of Christ the Holy Redeemer Church remains to be seen.
On page 342, the Cruise missile explodes against the dome, with the result that the reader has anticipated. (The book is, after all, 1,074 pages; if the missile had destroyed the dome, I would have ended within a few pages after 342). King’s description of the failure is cool, though:
They heard it come: a growing otherworldly hum from the western edge of town, a mmmm that rose to MMMMMM in a space of seconds. On the big-screen TV they saw almost nothing, until half an hour later, long after the missile had failed. For those still remaining in the roadhouse, Benny Drake was able to slow the recording down until it was advancing frame by frame. They saw the missile come slewing around what was known as Little Bitch Bend. It was no more than four feet off the ground, almost kissing its own blurred shadow. In the next frame, the Fasthawk, tipped with a blast-fragmentation warhead designed to explode on contact was frozen midair about where the Marines’ bivouac had been.
In the next frames, the screen filled with a white so bright it made the watchers shade their eyes. Then, as the white began to fade, they saw the missile fragments--so many black dashes against the diminishing blast--and a huge scorch mark where the red X [on the dome] had been. The missile had hit its spot exactly.
A second Cruise missile is followed, with the same result.
Obviously, the military’s solution to the problem represented by Chester’ Mill’s isolation beneath the mysterious barrier, which the president (a fictitious version of Barack Hussein Obama) approved, has failed, which makes an earlier scene between Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie, newspaper editor Julie Shumway, and Colonel Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara all the more ominous, for, in the brief exchange between them, when Big Jim sought to shut down the videocam link by which the missile’s impact was delivered to his constituents, the people of Chester’s Mill, as they looked on from the safe distance of the Dipper’s nightclub, the selectman threatened both Shumway and Barbara.
Now that the missile has failed to solve the problem of the dome, the reader can count upon Big Jim to carry out his threat. If the plot seems a bit too contrived and predictable, it’s probably too late for many readers to discontinue the narrative at this point, 343 pages into the story. However, one begins to wonder whether the novel can deliver on its association with Lord of the Flies or do justice to its exploration of the half dozen or so issues it has raised.
There’s but one way to know, and that’s to plod on. . . .