Copyrigjt 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
Two forces which conflict with the authoritarian regime that arises in Chester’s Mill, Maine, in the wake of the descent of the dome, a transparent barrier that cuts the town off from outer, surrounding world in Stephen King’s latest novel Under the Dome, are the band of social protesters whom the town’s boy genius, 13-year-old “Scarecrow” Joe McClatchey, organizes and the congregations of Christ the Holy Redeemer Church, pastured by the Reverend Lester Coggins, and the Congo Church, pastured by the Reverend Piper Libby.
None of these organizations, the reader is apt to think, seems likely to stand up to Second Selectman Big Jim Rennie; Police Chief Randolph; Jim’s sadistic son, Special Deputy Junior Rennie; or the U. S. military forces that guard the perimeter of the town.
McClatchey’s Committee to Free Chester’s Mill offers outdated political platitudes such as “FIGHT THE POWER!” and “STICK IT TO THE MAN!” Coggins preaches that the town’s isolation under the dome is the consequence of unconfessed sin. Libby encourages her congregation to “love one another,” characterizing the descent of the dome as a mystery like the affliction to which Job was subjected.
“In times of crisis,” King’s omniscient narrator informs the reader, “folks are apt to fall back on the familiar for comfort”; consequently, “there were no surprises for the faithful in Chester’s Mill that morning; Piper Libby preached hope at the Congo, and Lester Coggins preached hellfire at Christ the Holy Redeemer. Both churches were packed” (192). Of course, McClatchey’s message--“STICK IT TO THE MAN!”--is familiar, too, in quite another way, recalling similar sentiments from the 1960s, when political protest was all the rage.
Against these traditional, or “familial,” approaches to crisis, that of social protest (“STICK IT TO THE MAN!“) and religious tolerance (“love one another”) or “hellfire,” King suggests a third alternative--the one that most of his fiction also implicitly endorses: the banding together of the community--or whatever part of it will band together--against a common foe. So far, at page 192, this is a small band, indeed: former Army captain and current short-order cook Dale (“Barbie”) Barbara; Julie Shumway, the Republican owner and editor of the local newspaper, Democrat; and, possibly, Brenda, the widow of slain police chief Howard (“Duke”) Perkins, who has not yet been enlisted in the community’s cause.
In times past (for example, in Insomnia), King seems to have been more liberal in his ideology than he appears to be today. ‘Salem’s Lot takes issue with disbelief and hypocrisy among the clergy. Since Firestarter, he has been leery of government authority; in Insomnia, he all but champions abortion as a fundamental feminist human right. In Needful Things and, to a lesser extent, Christine, he offers some rather obvious critiques of capitalism. (Needful Things is also highly critical of Christianity’s get-rich-quick prosperity brand of preaching, and was, in fact, according to King himself, inspired by the excesses of Jim Bakker).
In Desperation, though, which is perhaps King’s most religious novel to date, he seems to have reached a turning point and, indeed, a maturation in his thinking about religious faith. On an individual, personal level, such faith, as exercised on the part of Desperation’s David Carver and John Marinville, trust in God can, indeed, move mountains, King suggests, although, in the process, the faithful themselves are apt to be among those hurt the most, both physically and emotionally. If God promises his followers a garden, it’s no longer the Garden of Eden, it appears, but the Garden of Gethsemane.
With nearly 900 pages left to go, I’m not clear yet as to whether Under the Dome will separate the wheat (Piper Libby’s brand of the faith) from the chaff (Lester Coggin’s brand of Christianity), showing the reader what’s fake faith and what’s the real deal (or, perhaps, why both versions of the gospel message offered by these churches is only partially complete and sustainable). Regardless of the outcome of this line of thought, one form of resistance to tyranny that seems likely to stand is the one that is suggested again and again by King’s fiction: it takes a village to stick it to the monster, whether the monster is a nightmarish fiend or a disturbed fellow human being.
Capitalism doesn‘t escape implied censure, either, because, sure enough, in the next scene, which follows hard upon the heels of the papering of Chester’s Mill with posters announcing the Committee to Free Chester’s Mill’s upcoming protest, King introduces Romeo Burpee, who, as the owner of “the largest and most profitable indie department store in the entire state,” hopes to profit from the protest and the churches’ meetings by selling his overstock at “the biggest damn cookout and field day this town has ever seen” (197).
For Burpee, who is always on the lookout for “the main chance,” entrepreneurial capitalism is synonymous, at times, at least, with opportunism, and, when the opportunity presents itself, he is quick to capitalize upon it, as “ruthlessly” as possible. It seems that opportunistic capitalism can save the day no more easily than social protest for the sake of social protest or the preaching of organized religion, either in its gentle-as-a-dove or its serpents-of-hell formulation.
And, now, back to the marathon that is Under the Dome. . . .