Note: this is the second in a planned three-part review/analysis of this novel. I will limit my discussion here to roughly the middle third of the novel, but be aware that I will frankly discuss important plot points. Click here for part one.
In the first part of this review, I praised King’s expert and minute creation of the city of Derry. What’s incredible here is that he hasn’t created just one setting—he’s actually created two. When the principal characters converge in Derry in 1986, they find that their hometown has changed drastically from what they (and, by extension, we as readers) expected from it. Many of the landmarks, which we see in the 1958 sections, are gone, replaced with sprawling shopping complexes and a multitude of banks. The deserted ruin of the Derry Ironworks, where Mike Hanlon first encounters the creature the Losers refer to as “It” has been bulldozed and the land is now home to the largest shopping mall in the area. The landmarks that do survive, such as the Aladdin theater, remain, but in a depressing state of disuse and disrepair. When comparing these two settings, it’s clear that King understands one of the most cliché, but still resonant, phrases used to describe growing up: you can’t go home again. Derry has fundamentally changed, yet, the eternal spirit of It, the monster of the sewers, endures. It’s a striking and ominous contradiction.
King is maintaining his acute psychological focus. Taken as a linear progression of events, the plot of the novel is not complex. In each setting, 1958 and 1986, there is a sense that the characters understand what needs to be done. There are obvious plot obstacles that prevent them from carrying out the deed, but King is smart enough to throw up far more psychological roadblocks. Stan, the practical, pragmatic Boy Scout, cannot process the illogical evil and supernatural power of Pennywise. Eddie, the hypochondriac, has to overcome the smothering influence of his mother before he can truly take his place among his friends. Bill, the steadfast de facto leader of the Loser’s Club, has to deal with the death of his younger brother and that loss’ effect on his parent’s marriage. I could go on, but suffice it to say that King seems to be suggesting that most of the monsters that we must overcome to progress into adulthood are first and foremost creatures of our own minds. Pennywise preys on the elemental fears of the kids’ childhood, and they cannot hope to overcome the monster without first overcoming, or at least choosing to face, those fears. The monster that lurks in the sewers of Derry is defeatable only after the kids have dealt with the demons in their own heads. As with the setting, this is a powerful and resonant contradiction.
In the first part of this review, I took issue with the way King handled social issues such as racial bigotry and homophobia. After reading further into the book, I think I have a clearer sense of what he was going for. Mike Hanlon’s thoughts get a lot of a space in the text in the form of five interludes that provide a buffer between the main sections of the book. In one of these interludes, Mike relates a story his father told him about a group of black soldiers at a military base in Derry. In the 1930s (right at the tail end of the last cycle of murders), a restaurant/bar/dance hall the black soldier built themselves in defiance of their white superiors was burned to the ground in a terrible fire. The Black Spot (as the building was called) was totally burned down by members of a KKK-like white radical group. As Mike’s father tells the story, it becomes clear that Pennywise, or some form of him, was present at the fire. King is doing work here to show that the evil that resides in Derry is more than just a boogeyman or a monster. The shadow of Pennywise casts a long darkness over every aspect of the town’s history. The monster was present at the fire, so the question becomes: Is the culture of the town feeding on Pennywise, or is Pennywise influencing the culture of the town? Or perhaps they are complimentary and it’s a mixture of each. The point I want to make is that King’s portrayal of racism (which is by no means limited to this small section about the fire at the Black Spot—racial slurs and horrific displays of bigotry pervade the novel) seems to dovetail with what he has to say about evil in general. Racism is especially potent in the 1958 sections, and King implies that that form of bigotry is at least in part fueled by the malign influence of the clown. He does not, however, go so far as to suggest that racism is a result of the clown. Doing so would excuse racism as something the characters in the book cannot control. Rather, it seems that Pennywise feeds on that anger and fear, which allows him to further exert his will on the residents of Derry. Pennywise, as we can see in several scenes, gains his power through causing fear. And what is racism if not fear of the unknown? It’s a complicated interconnection, but it’s easily one of the most interesting and unexpected things about the novel so far.
Another way that King links Pennywise to the cancer at the heart of Derry is through the character of Henry Bowers. Pennywise is the ultimate evil force in the book, but he operates mostly off-screen. Bowers, on the other hand, becomes a clear and tangible antagonist. He is older than the members of the Loser’s Club, but he was held back in school. Bowers factors in, at least in some way, to nearly every major conflict the kids in the 1958 sections face. He enters the novel as the embodiment of the prototypical school bully. He demands to be allowed to cheat on tests, steals money, and generally causes mischief. But as the summer progresses, we see Bowers become increasingly unhinged. What begins as simple bullying morphs into something far more sadistic and mad. Bowers is especially violent toward Mike, the only black member of the Loser’s Club. Even Bowers’ compatriots often express unease over how far Bowers is willing to take his vendetta against the kids. In one scene, he chases Mike through the forest with a powerful firecracker in his hands, and he thinks that when he catches Mike he will light it and stuff it down the front of the boy’s pants. It’s stated by several other characters, including the kids’ parents, that Bower’s father, who served in the war, is likewise insane. So, it seems that King is showing, on a small scale, that evil is generational and recursive. In fact, Bower’s escalation of madness is concordant with the escalation of the Pennywise killings.
In this middle section of the novel, all of the pieces are in play, and we are getting necessary backstory as well as progress in the frontstory. There are multiple strands of internal and external conflict that seem to be escalating at an equal rate in parallel. It’s kind of an amazing feat for a novelist to sustain this level of tension and conflict, on so many levels, for such a long span of pages. At the time of this writing I still have 300 pages left to read. Regardless of that length, there’s a clear sense that we’re moving toward a tremendous, multi-leveled final conflict. In 1958, the Loser’s are marshaling their wits in preparation for their first trip into the sewers to do battle with the monster. In 1986, those same kids, separated from the town and from each other by proximity and age, are trying to come together one more time as a group to finally do away with the evil that has been plaguing both them and Derry for so long.