Stephen King's "Under the Dome" is so richly detailed -- some will say overly detailed at nearly 1,100 pages -- that you come to know the people of Chester's Mill, Maine, the way you know an extended family.
That means the saints, the sinners and even the ones not long for this Earth.
Take Claudette Sanders. In about nine paragraphs, we learn she's rich, persuasive, the wife of the town's First Selectman and a student of aviation. She and flight instructor Chuck Thompson are tooling through the air in a $1 million plane, observing the town through unlimited visibility from about 1,000 feet, conversing about the sights and the sunshine.
Then come the 10th and 11th paragraphs:
" 'Beautiful goddam day!' Claudie exclaimed. Chuck laughed.
"Their lives had another forty seconds to run."
In a series of horrifying vignettes, King sets the stage for "the dome," an invisible, virtually impenetrable barrier that envelops the town on this bright October day.
While its cause is not immediately known, it soon attracts the eyes of the nation and world. Though no one's getting in or out, you can communicate through the dome and the air supply appears sufficient, at least initially. But don't get too close with machines or electronics; something about this force field likes to trigger explosions.
The real drama is in Chester's Mill. King references more than 100 characters, but the primary rivals are the most interesting. Dale Barbera, better known as Barbie, is an Iraq war veteran now toiling as a cook at the Sweetbriar Rose diner. Jim Rennie, a car dealer and alderman, is a morally challenged big shot who'd rather give orders than take them. The former is commissioned a colonel and put in charge by President Obama; the latter is a Sarah Palin-loving zealot who moonlights in crystal meth and trouble.
Barbie and Big Jim organize townspeople into opposing factions, so conflicts build quickly over the course of just a week. That's partly because it takes little time for a stench to build and for carbon dioxide and methane to poison the air supply and darken the dome. Tempers rise in keeping with the escalating temperature inside.
Others work diligently on the outside, trying to understand and then resolve this freak of nature. All wonder whether the dome is the work of alien invaders, eco-terrorists or just a consequence of global warming.
As the days progress, so do the hordes of media and onlookers, turning the surrounding countryside into a kind of living room in which to watch the latest demented reality show. Despite a muddled chapter here or there, "Under the Dome" builds relentlessly and powerfully to a conclusion that's semi-plausible and wholly satisfying. King is as much entertainer as he is author, after all, and the novel characteristically reflects his sense of pop culture and dark humor.
In the afterword, King tells us the genesis of the book dates to the late 1970s when he scribbled 500 pages before ending the effort. Dig a little deeper on his Web site and you'll find that his inaugural attempt, which morphed into something called "The Cannibals," was mostly written "in Pittsburgh, during the filming of 'Creepshow.' I spent two months in a depressing suburban apartment complex that became (with the usual fictional tweaks) the setting for the story."
Well, better late than never. Now's your chance to put "Under the Dome" under your nose. It's another King-sized tome in the grand tradition of "The Stand," which is to say you're in for a treat.
Allan Walton, AME/Multimedia, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1932.