Critics crawled from their cubicles gnashing their pens when Stephen King was awarded the National Book Foundation's Medal for Distinguished Contributions to American Letters. A genre writer (gasp), a man whose books are popular (double gasp) had won a prestigious literary award. What horror! In his forthright acceptance speech, King admonished that no one earns "social or academic brownie points" for avoiding popular books. Some of the best novels are currently being written in genre fiction. He concluded, "Fiction is a lie to begin with. To ignore the truth inside the lie," now, that's the "sin against the craft."

In "Under The Dome," King has crafted an absorbing novel that -- despite being a bit unwieldy in places -- is brutally honest about what it means to be human when survival may not be an option.

On a clear October day, an invisible dome descends over the town of Chester's Mill, Maine. After the initial horrors of planes falling from the sky when they hit it, woodland creatures being crushed under it and families separated by it, the population caught inside the dome must face their terrifying new reality: They're trapped and on their own.

On the outside, the government, the media, the rest of the world, initially try to help. Eventually they realize all they can do is watch as if they're witnessing the ultimate reality show -- only the prize for those participating "under the dome" is death.

The ensnared population is 100-plus, and we meet many of them: the mostly incompetent town officials, the police department that quickly shifts into fascist mode, the medical staff that has to improvise without a doctor and the handful of men, women and especially children who become the town's heroes. King's characters are ordinary men and women in an extraordinary circumstance. Without knowing why, their town has quickly become a giant petri dish of psychological terror, physical violence and human ingenuity.

The book is not without flaws. I wondered as I was reading this massive tome if being King's editor carries its own kind of terror. I mean, how do you tell a master storyteller that he has way too much story? Despite a cast of compelling characters, details about them washing their clothes, lacing their shoes and making sandwiches got to be too much for me. Plus every 50 pages or so, the narrator interjects with an awkward simile or a clumsy metaphor, interrupting the suspense.

In the end, it didn't matter to me what caused the dome to drop (although the reason's pretty cool). When I realized things might not end well for the characters I cared about, like everyone else outside the dome I couldn't tear myself away.

Carole E. Barrowman teaches at Alverno College in Milwaukee and blogs at