I finally finished Stephen King’s massive Under the Dome: A Novel and loved it. As a matter of fact, tears streamed down my face over the last 20 pages. Man really knows how to pull it out. Cashel and I were both reading it during our family vacation. Cashel would ask me where I was in the book, and I would tell him, but unfortunately we couldn’t really talk about it since Cashel didn’t want to give spoilers. Cashel finished the book during our vacation and reported this fact to me. He informed me, “I really like the ending. It’s a good Stephen King ending.” He approved. And now that I finished the book, I agree with Cashel. Under the Dome has some similarities to The Stand in that it is about an apocalyptic event and how that event affects a vast cast of characters. Good and evil stand starkly on opposite sides of the fence. The apocalyptic event is only the beginning of the troubles, because once the community has adjusted to its new set of circumstances, the next inevitable step is a giant power grab by those who want to be in charge. Dictators emerge in times of strife. Power vacuums are very dangerous. The best person does not always take the position. As a matter of fact, it is more usually the opposite. So The Stand is all about that, with a transcendent almost Biblical streak to it. Under the Dome is more nuts and bolts, and how power is appropriated, and how goods and services are regulated (to keep the people submissive and needy), and how timing is everything. You need to have the people afraid but not too afraid. You have to put on a show of being not only the only one who truly “cares” about the people and their destinies, but also the only one with the smarts who can make it happen. There is a supernatural element to Under the Dome and it is certainly one of King’s most violent books. The bloodshed is ferocious.
But why I love King, and why I go to him again and again, is because of sequences like the one below.
King’s prose burns with a white clarity here. He knows exactly what he is doing, and what he is setting up, and he has created the perfect anecdote to illustrate it. The anecdote also has such a breath of reality to it, especially if you grew up in a small town. King understands small New England towns better than most people. I grew up in a small New England town where the girls’ basketball team was the hottest ticket of the season, where we had our own Hanna Comptons tearing down the court, where the girls were blowing the boys away, in terms of wins per season, and fan franzy. My group of friends felt it was so unfair that the boys’ teams had cheerleading squads, and the girls teams didn’t. So we formed our own cheerleading squad, called The Phys. Wrecks, and we went to every single game, including the big championship games up in Providence, where people had no idea what was happening when we trotted out onto the giant court. How FUNNY, right, how WEIRD, to have GIRLS cheering for girls? In our own adolescent way, we exposed the underlying sexism behind much of high school sports, and the roles that girls are supposed to play. Why is it WEIRD to have a cheerleading team for a girls’ team? Why did people snicker? You snicker at yourselves and your own bigotry. Creating The PHys. Wrecks is one of my proudest high school moments. We wanted to acknowledge the great accomplishments of our high school girls’ basketball team, who were unbeatable (and, as King writes below, those games were fierce in a way that the boys’ teams weren’t: King NAILS it).
And so it is passages like these that shows Stephen King, an acknowledged master, at his very best. It’s not the horror I go to him for, it’s not even the plot-lines. It’s for observations like this, which are so accurate, so pointed, and so eloquent.
It’s also one of those things that is so specific that I have actually not heard it expressed before in quite this way. It is something I know and understand, from my Phys. Wrecks days, when our girls’ team was the Best Thing in Town … but I had never heard it put so succinctly, so perfectly.
It is Stephen King at his very best.
Other than town politics, Big Jim Rennie had only one vice, and that was high school girls’ basketball – Lady Wildcats basketball, to be exact. He’d had season tickets ever since 1998, and attended at least a dozen games a year. In 2004, the year the Lady Wildcats won the State Class D championship, he attended all of them. And although the autographs people noticed when they were invited into his home study were inevitably those of Tiger Woods, Dale Earnhardt and Bill “Spaceman” Lee, the one of which he was proudest – the one he treasured – was Hanna Compton’s, the little sophomore point guard who had led the Lady Wildcats to that one and only gold ball.
When you’re a season ticket holder, you get to know the other season ticket holders around you, and their reasons for being fans of the game. Many are relatives of the girls who play (and often the sparkplugs of the Booster Club, putting on bake sales and raising money for the increasingly expensive “away” games). Others are basketball purists, who will tell you – with some justification – that the girls’ games are just better. Young female players are invested in a team ethic that the boys (who love to run and gun, dunk, and shoot from way downtown) rarely match. The pace is slower, allowing you to see inside the game and enjoy every pick-and-roll or give-and-go. Fans of the girls’ game relish the very low scores that boys’ basketball fans sneer at, claiming that the girls’ game puts a premium on defense and foul shooting, which are the very definition of old-school hoops.
There are also guys who just like to watch long-legged teenage girls run around in short pants.
Big Jim shared all these reasons for enjoying the sport, but his passion sprang from another source entirely, one he never vocalized when discussing the games with his fellow fans. It would not have been politic to do so.
The girls took the sport personally, and that made them better haters.
The boys wanted to win, yes, and sometimes a game could get hot if it was against a traditional rival (in the case of the Mills Wildcats sports teams, the despised Castle Rock Rockets), but mostly with the boys it was about individual accomplishments. Showing off, in other words. And when it was over, it was over.
The girls, on the other hand, loathed losing. They took loss back to the locker room and brooded over it. more importantly, they loathed and hated it as a team. Big Jim often saw that hate rear its head; during a loose ball-brawl deep in the second half with the sc ore tied, he could pick up the No you don’t, you little bitch, that ball is MINE vibe. He picked it up and fed on it.
Before 2004, the Lady Wildcats made the state tournament only once in twenty years, that appearance a one-and-done affair against Buckfield. Then had come Hanna Compton. The greatest hater of all time, in Big Jim’s opinion.
As the daughter of Dale Compton, a scrawny pulp-cutter from Tarker’s Mills who was usually drunk and always argumentative, Hanna had come by her out-of-my-face ‘tude naturally enough. As a freshman she had played JV for most of the season; Coach swung her up to varsity only for the last two games, where she’d outscored everyone and left her opposite number from the Richmond Bobcats writing on the hardwood after a hard but clean defensive play.
When that game was over, Big Jim had collared Coach Woodhead. “If that girl doesn’t start next year, you’re crazy,” he said.
“I’m not crazy,” Coach Woodhead had replied.
Hanna had started hot and finished hotter, blazing a trail that Wildcats fans would still be talking about years later (season average: 27.6 points per game). She could spot up and drop a three-pointer any time she wanted, but what Big Jim liked best was to watch her split the defense and drive for the basket, her pug face set in a sneer of concentration, her bright black eyes daring anyone to get in her way, her short ponytail sticking out behind her like a raised middle finger. The Mill’s Second Selectman and premier used car dealer had fallen in love.
In the 2004 championship game, the Lady Wildcats had been leading the Rock Rockets by ten when Hanna fouled out. Luckily for the Cats, there was only a buck-sixteen left to play. They ended up winning by a single point. Of their eighty-six total points, Hanna Compton had scored a brain-freezing sixty-three. That spring, her argumentative dad had ended up behind the wheel of a brand-new Cadillac, sold to him at cost-minus-forty-percent by James Rennie Sr. New cars weren’t Big Jim’s business, but when he wanted one “off the back of the carrier”, he could always get it.
Sitting in Peter Randolph’s office, with the last of the pink meteor shower still fading away outside (and his problem children waiting – anxiously, Big Jim hoped – to be summoned and told their fate), Big JIm recalled that fabulous, that outright mythic, basketball game; specifically the first eight minutes of the second half, which had begun with the Lady Wildcats down by nine.
Hanna had taken the game over with the single-minded brutality of Joseph Stalin taking over Russia, her black eyes glittering (and seemingly fixed upon some basketball Nirvana beyond the sight of normal mortals), her face locked in that eternal sneer that said, I’m better than you, I’m the best, get out of my way or I’ll run you the fuck down. Everything she threw up during that eight minutes had gone in, including one absurd half-court shot that she launched when her feet tangled together, getting rid of the rock just to keep from being called for traveling.
There were phrases for that sort of run, the most common being in the zone. But the one Big Jim liked was feeling it, as in “She’s really feeling it now.” As though the game had some divine texture beyond the reach of ordinary players (although sometimes even ordinary players felt it , and were transformed for a brief while into gods and goddesses, every bodily defect seeming to disappear during their transitory divinity), a texture that on special nights could be touched: some rich and marvelous drape such as much adorn the hardwood halls of Valhalla.
Hanna Compton had never played her junior year; the championship game had been her valedictory. That summer, while driving drunk, her father had killed himself, his wife, and all three daughters while driving back to Tarker’s Mills from Brownie’s, where they had gone for ice cream frappes. The bonus Cadillac had been their coffin.
The multiple-fatality crash had been front page news in western Maine – Julia Shumway’s Democrat published an issue with a black border that week – but Big Jim had not been grief-stricken. Hanna never would have played college ball, he suspected; there the girls were bigger, and she might have been reduced to role-player status. She never would have stood for that. Her hate had to be fed by constant action on the floor. Big Jim understood completely. He sympathized completely. It was the main reason he had never even considered leaving The Mill. In the wider world he might have made more money, but wealth was the short beer of existence. Power was champagne.
Running The Mill was good on ordinary days, but in times of crisis it was better than good. In times like that you could fly on the pure wings of intuition, knowing that you couldn’t screw up, absolutely couldn’t. You could read the defense even before the defense had coalesced, and you scored every time you got the ball. You were feeling it, and there was no better time for that to happen than in a championship game.
This was his championship game, and everything was breaking his way. He had the sense – the total belief – that nothing could go wrong during this magical passage; even things that seemed wrong would become opportunities rather than stumbling blocks, like Hanna’s desperation half-court shot that had brought the whole Derry Civic Center to its feet, the Mills fans cheering, the Castle Rockers raving in disbelief.