Note: this is the last of a three-part review/analysis of this novel. I will frankly discuss important plot points, but I think that the statute of limitations on spoilers is up after twenty-six years. If you’re new to the site, you can find part one here.
It’s over. I’m done. I’ve turned the last page of this massive (one might argue too massive) novel. It’s clear to me why this is such an iconic book. This is vintage, classic King. The television mini-series (which I admit to still having some nostalgic affection for) now seems like weak tea in comparison. The novel is so much richer and emotionally and metaphorically resonant than that mini-series could have ever hoped to capture. That’s not the fault the television, but rather an endorsement for how stunning the book is.
Up until the final third, the novel kept the two timelines distinct, separating them with Mike Hanlon’s interludes. In the final third, however, the boundaries between the present and the past break down almost completely. Sections alternate between parallel actions in 1958 and 1986, propelling us toward a braided, simultaneous conclusion as the Losers and their aged counterparts each enter the sewers below their respective versions of Derry. Sections break off mid-sentence, only to have the following section pick up where the last left off, mid-action, years in the past or the future. The story’s twin climaxes happen in tandem. It’s a breathtaking trick, one that builds tension and also underscores the echoing, almost fated interplay between the past and present. In my last entry, I hoped for a complex, satisfying climax, and I got it.
While I was browsing on GoodReads after I finished the book, I found a lot of conversation about one particular scene that occurs very late. Near the end of the 1958 storyline, the kids wander blindly through the sewers. Bill has (he thinks) killed It, and the magic that has bound the kids together all summer for that purpose is beginning to break down. They are lost, on the verge of panic, facing the very real possibility that they will not be able to find their way out of the labyrinth beneath Derry. In a startling and somewhat unnerving decision, Beverly attempts to regain some of that lost connection by making love to each of the boys in turn. Taken out of context and at face value, yes, this is an uncomfortable moment. I also think that is the point. The act of physical intimacy prowls around the periphery of this book, and Beverly’s story in particular–Beverly’s father’s frightening insistence that he check that his daughter is still ‘pure”; Beverly’s abusive husband getting off on hitting her; what Beverly sees pass between Henry Bowers and Patrick Hockstetter at the Derry dump in 1958; Beverly and Bill’s reunion in Bill’s hotel room in 1985.
Sex is, really, the final act of growing up, and also the the most frightening–it marks the definitive and permanent transition into adulthood,. King treats this scene with all of the gravity and care that is deserves, and it becomes, I think, the most moving and beautiful scene in the entire novel.
This sex is an act of closeness, rather than an act of lust. It is, as Beverly thinks, the “essential human link between the world and the infinite, the only place where the bloodstream touches eternity” (1037). They have touched the dark side of the infinite–they have battled It, and they have won. But their connection is fading. In this moment, Beverly decides to cross that un-recrossable line, to forge a connection between them that will be more lasting even than the bonds of their friendship–a bond that will hold them together even as the magic of circle wears away. As she lies with Ben, Beverly thinks about the girls her class who giggled about sex. She “realizes that for many of them sex must be some unrealized, undefined monster; they refer to the act as It” (1039). This line is what seals it for me. King is not writing this scene to be sensational or shocking, as some have suggested. By taking ownership of the act of sex, Beverly eradicates one of the most deep-seated human fears–she ascends right in front of our eyes. I find it very difficult to read the scene as immature or immoral or disgusting. Then again, I can totally see why accepting this scene would mean crossing is a line that some are unwilling to or unable to cross. I think that it’s a ballsy thing, both for King to have written, and for his editors to agreed to preserve. Like King, Beverly and Bill “realize what an enormous act this is” (1040). Its the defining moment in the book, and also, for me, one the most beautiful and affecting scenes I’ve ever read.
It don’t think it’s a terrible spoiler to tell you that, at the end, the Loser’s win. It is defeated. There are some aspects about the way this happens, however, that I’m less than thrilled with. First, it’s been a given from the start that the image of Pennywise the clown was not the true face of It. In a scene in which the Loser’s attempt to grant themselves visions, we learn that It came from the stars, from some unknowable alternate place. While It stands for fear and chaos and destruction, its counterpart, the great Turtle (who will be familiar to anyone who’s read The Dark Tower) stands for creation and wisdom. I’m not sure how I feel about King being so explicit about where It comes from. I think I was more frightened by It when its origins were mysterious. It was an unknowable, immortal being, and was thus far more frightening. That which we cannot possibly know always scares us more. And for most of the book, It exists this way. By the end, King has laid out, if somewhat vaguely, where the monster comes from. In way, this plays into a central theme of the book–that what we fear is rendered less scary by knowledge. But I think that idea only gets us so far and is ultimately an unsatisfying explanation. I am even less enamored with the sections that actually take place from It’s point of view. By giving a dimension-spanning chaos monster a voice, an inner heart, he was brought down to size in a way that diminished his scariness. Again, that was probably the point. In those sections in which It speaks, we understand that he is experiencing something that he has never felt before: fear. In It’s final moments, It is afraid. It’s a strange trade-off, a story decision that presents several problems while at the same time bringing some of the novel’s central arguments to a logical close. I also sort of wish that It’s final form (or as near a final form as the kids could comprehend) had not turned out to be a big spider.
Ultimately, none of that really matters, because this story is not really about It at all. The book is filled with ghouls and beasts, but that is not what defines the book, no more than a person is defined by their fears. No, it’s our reaction to those fears and what helps us overcome them that defines us. This book is all about that, about growing up, fear, desire, friendship, loss, bravery, love–the most potent and enduring themes in all of literature.
Before beginning this project, I would have said that nothing could dethrone The Stand as my favorite novel. Not just favorite King novel, but favorite novel. It comes the closest to doing so. It’s a remarkable novel by one of our greatest storytellers, written at the height of his emotional and imaginative powers. It is a novel that is almost disheartening to read, because it makes me aware of how rarely a book, or any story for that matter, make me feel like this novel did. I was most surprised at how generous it was, how King treated each character as a real human being, full of flaws and eccentricities and reasons to love. And while there are instances where I feel that King was being self-indulgent, I never felt like he was being pretentious or disingenuous. It’s clear that the author believed in every word of the book, and for that reason alone I would give it my recommendation. It is an enormous book that paints the world as it appeared to the seven principle characters who grew up in it, left home, and returned when it was in trouble, finding that what bound them in youth is what bound them as adults: love.
It gets five pieces of lasagna.