Book review: Under The Dome

Under The Dome by Stephen KingHodder & Stoughton, 896pp, £19.99Review by STEPHEN MCGINTY

I READ IT, Stephen King's 1,120 page masterpiece, and perhaps the first new hardback book I owned, in late January after my prelims. I remember sitting, slung low in a worn, battered chair, pushed snug against my bedroom radiator, flicking through the pages late into the night, occasionally looking out the attic window and down onto the rain-swept streets to the dark lane where, in ghoulish make-up, floated Pennywise the Clown.

Or, at least he did in my imagination. The story of four childhood friends reunited as adults to defeat an ancient evil that threatens to destroy the town of Derry remains a sublime reading experience, a week of late nights, strong tea and a nervous hand that reached to put out the light. Stephen King has walked alongside me ever since. I am, as he would say, a "Constant Reader". So I can recall where I read the 1,440 pages of The Stand – on the black sand of Stromboli, tearing off each chapter to feed to my fiance. It was surprisingly easy to slip into the post-apocalyptic world of America after the devastation of a flu-like virus in the quiet of an island off Italy.

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The question is, will I, in years to come, remember so vividly reading Under the Dome? In heft and length, King's latest house-brick can confidently stand in the company of It and The Stand. But can it match them for quality?

First, let's just say that King has not lost his touch for conjuring the grim reality of small-town life. It was originally to be called Derry, the town in which it was set, the town in which many of King's novels were set before he decided to immolate the entire zip code in Needful Things, his comic pastiche of Reaganism in which the Devil grants everyone their heart's desire.

The town that falls under the Dome is Chester's Mill, a bucolic little place nestled in the countryside of Maine where, on 21 October, an invisible force field suddenly materialises and quarantines its inhabitants from the rest of the world. Planes flying in the airspace are suddenly cut in two, cars crash into it, animals are sliced by its swift appearance and, later, cruise missiles bounce off. The Dome rises to a height of 47,000 feet and burrows deep underground, sealing all the inhabitants inside and, as other Constant Readers will be aware, the ordinary man does not fare well under such circumstances when Mr King is writing the script.

Like The Stand, Under the Dome is another meditation on good and evil from an author whose Christian imagery and spirituality is a hidden spring that flows through his work, unrecognised by critics clinging to his caricature as the bogeyman of American letters. On the dark side is Big Jim Rennie, the local car dealership owner and head of the town council, who views the crisis as an opportunity to consolidate power and extend it over life and death. That's a prerogative his son – a psychotic who stashes corpses in the pantry – has already claimed. On the side of the angels is Dale Barbara, a former army captain struggling with post traumatic stress disorder from his term in Iraq, who is promoted to the role of colonel and charged with holding the population together until the government can figure out a solution. Between these two pillars is strung a cast of 63 characters whom we follow, often for extended periods, as they cope with increasing claustrophobia and the fact that time is rapidly running out.

The pages, however, stretch on for ever and that, sadly, is the point. I'm an advocate of King's lengthy ruminations – he can build characters as domestic and well-rounded as Updike or Cheever. Granted, neither of those two permitted themselves to stray from the neat garden of domestic male neuroses into the teeming jungle of psychopathy where King is at his happiest; but he can also do poignancy like few other writers and there are scenes here good enough to induce tears. But the novel is rather too loose, rambling and saggy; and if it took him 30 years to complete it – he wrote the first 75 pages in 1978 – you feel he could have spent a few more months trimming the fat and leaving the muscle.

Is Under the Dome a masterpiece? No, but it nestles comfortably between his two great peaks. Will I remember where I was when I read it? Indeed, for what else should you expect from a Constant Reader?