(Under the Dome)
I’ve been waiting to get to this one since I started this project. Oh, not because I think I have anything profound to say, just because I’ve been waiting to re-read this book since then. I’m sort of always waiting to re-read this book. I just finished it and I’m already waiting to read it again.
I don’t like to rank books, especially King books — lots of them are my favorite when I’m reading them. I like to stick with “this one’s somewhere in my top ten” or something like that. But, gun to my head and I have to pick a favorite? It’s probably going to be this one. Weird, right? I get the sense that it has more haters than people who love it. I love it though. I think it’s been over a year since I last read it, but no, I still love it.
A lot of this book seems like it was written just for me to like. Big Jim Rennie, for example, seems like a character who is tailor-made for me to hate and enjoy the hating of. He wasn’t — it’s just that he’s based on Dick Cheney, who I also find eminently hateable (but far less fun to hate, since his damage was real and not fictional). Meanwhile, characters like Jackie and Julia and Andrea seem targeted for me to like and root for. And even some of the more problematic good guys (hello, Dale Barbara) are up against such heinous assholes that it’s easy to root for them despite my doubts about them.
Although I know that King’s political bent has been obvious in books going back to the beginning, this is probably the one that made me notice it first. Because, of course, it concerned politics that I was concerned with, not politics that seemed like history to me. Probably I shouldn’t laugh at the people who just discovered this about King in the Trump years, probably they were having the same experience. On the other hand, I didn’t go posting my kneejerk thoughts that I hadn’t researched or reflected on all over the internet.
I mean, it’s a book with obvious George W. Bush and Dick Cheney stand-in characters. It has a veteran of Bush’s war as a protagonist. The events of the book are somehow 9/11, Katrina (pretty sure there’s a clear allusion to “heckuva job, Brownie, in here), and the blue eyes/brown eyes school experiment all at once, and at least two of those are Bush administration babies. And the third is kind of the GOP philosophy — “we’re better than you”.
The politics actually goes deeper than I’d thought. I wanted to use “It’s a small town and we all support the team” as the post title quote. But that’s not actually a Stephen King quote, it’s from a real song by a real artist. And while looking it up, I discovered that this artist — a country music artist, no less — is responsible for a number of overtly political songs, including one called “Cheney’s Toy”, which flat out calls Bush out on being, well, the title. I guess I wasn’t fully up on my country music facts in 2009, but now that I know, I have to think that King’s decision to have everyone in town thinking about a James McMurtry song was probably not an accident.
Yes, some people hate the end. Some think it’s weak, some just hate aliens. My response is that the end doesn’t matter to this book at all for one thing. It’s so clearly not about getting out of the dome. Most of them are dead by that point anyway. What matters is what they do while they’re under the dome. The end is just there because it needed some end, and most readers were going to want some why. But the important parts all came much earlier on. For another thing, in a universe where Tommyknockers exists and Dreamcatcher exists, Under the Dome is King’s best use of aliens yet. They’re not weird vascular clawed things, they don’t take root in anyone’s colon, and they’re not even trying to invade or take over. The ones we’re concerned with are just mean kids, ones who think of us as basic ants. To me, that’s more realistic and scarier than the idea of an invasion by a buried ship or shitweasel.
The book is not without its problems. I’m less enthused about Dale “Barbie” Barbara than I used to be. The book seems at great pains to forgive him for participating in Bush’s war to the point of torturing random Iraqi men as a form of dealing with frustration, but I see no particular reason to forgive him — he may be trying to make the argument that we all have the potential to do evil things, but I don’t see why that should make it OK. But Barbie may also not be as much the point as I originally thought either. After all, it’s not his actions that ultimately end the town’s imprisonment.
I’m also not loving the treatment of Sammy Bushey. This is really not a King-specific critique, it just gets old seeing brutal rape used to illustrate just how bad the bad characters are. I would have gotten it without that and didn’t need it.
And there are a few other things — the description of Rommie Burpee’s wife having “the emotional makeup of a junkyard dog”, the description of Junior’s face looking like “a Japanese death mask” as he dies just because his eyelids are pulled up — things like that ended up with notes that just say things like “why, Steve?” from me. But overall, the portrayal of what happens in a small town cut off from the rest of the world, especially one with a puppet master and sappy puppet in charge of things, that seems broadly applicable to what happens when a country run by a puppet master and his sappy puppet cut themselves off from the world… it all just works for me. With a little dash of Breaking Bad thrown in for good measure — I know King started writing this long before the show — he notes that the original idea dates back to 1976 — but I notice that Breaking Bad started during his most recent and successful stab at this story, and it’s hard for me to believe that the methamphetamine angle wasn’t influenced by the show. Somehow, had it been written in 1976, I don’t really think it would have been a meth lab that was the town’s dirty secret.
My point is that the story works for me. The characters work for me. The message works for me, and the why even works for me, as much as I think it’s unimportant.
It’s too bad that Under the Dome inspired one of the worst Stephen King adaptations I’ve ever seen. There was a series. I don’t know that it’s findable. I don’t recommend looking for it. It’s awful. About the only thing I think they got right was casting Dean Norris as Big Jim. He has the right look and attitude. Everything else about it was nonsense, though. I would like to see this done right at some point. I feel like it would make a better movie than a series. Maybe a miniseries. Anything but what it was.