The Iran hostage crisis of 1979-1980 is at the center of why the United States and Iran are literally not on speaking terms. When America’s relationship with the Shah is looked at, it’s not hard to understand why the Iranian people were upset. On the other hand, when the Shah was toppled, no one could have predicted that the Ayatollah Khomeni would turn out to be not only as brutally repressive as the Shah, but also not entirely stable. When the alleged reformer backs the invasion of an embassy and the kidnapping of diplomatic personnel, it’s amazing that six Americans who were not in the embassy at the time of the take over managed to escape.
The escape of six American “house guests” came about largely through the efforts of Ken Taylor, Canada’s ambassador to the United States. For the longest time, almost all the credit went to Taylor, who engineered the concealment and smuggling of the six American fugitives, as well as providing support for the failed Operation Eagle Claw intended to save the 53 Americans held captive.
But the story is more complicated than that. Taylor, as ambassador, was the public face of a series of maneuvers that only recently could anyone in the US, Canada, and Iran talk about. There were members of the CIA, the Canadian foreign service, and even some inside Iran not happy with the direction Khomeni was taking the country. While even the Soviet Union and China, while not supporting sanctions, expressed outrage that an embassy had been violated – considered sancrosanct even in mysterious, defiant North Korea – Iran simply considered those in the embassy not taken hostage as fugitives. Written by a Canadian journalist, and featuring reminiscences from Taylor, his colleagues in External Affairs and the State Department, and even Prime Minister Joe Clark and President Jimmy Carter, we get a picture of Iran’s revolution that shows, with no prejudice, that Khomeni had become corrupted by absolute power and religious mania. Instead of freeing the nation from the oppression under the Shah, they simply replaced the monarch with another monster pretending to be a man of God.
We also get to see what former prime ministers Joe Clark and Pierre Trudeau were made of. Clark and Trudeau faced off twice in national elections during the hostage crisis, and both men took great pains to conceal Canada’s role in rescuing the missing Americans. Clark showed admirable restraint in saying nothing about the eventual rescue during his reelection campaign and incredible political shrewdness in getting the cabinet to sign off on a one-time authorization for phony Canadian passports to allow the Americans to walk right out of the country in plain sight.
Jimmy Carter, who often gets blamed for much of the hostage crisis’ duration, comes across as the most screwed president in American history. Handed a badly botched policy on Iran, courtesy of the Nixon Administration, Carter found himself trying to restore relations with Iran where the public deeply resent American interference dating back to 1953 and where the CIA’s own intelligence was hamstrung by Nixon’s willingness to let the Shah’s brutal Savak security organization supply intelligence about Iran to Washington. The only thing Carter could do was blunder. Had Ronald Reagan been elected in 1976, he, too, likely would have been a one-term president over the Iran debacle. It was that inevitable.
My favorite parts concern a European spy for the CIA codenamed “Bob,” whose identity remains, as of 2011, classified. Yet Bob was a force of nature not to be denied when assigned to help the Canadians send their “house guests” home. If equipment failures and an accident had not wrecked Eagle Claw, it’s likely Bob would be known today as the man who saved 53 hostages.
The last time I read this book was when it came out in the eighties. I saw the miniseries which, except for the ending, I liked better. (The ending was next to impossible to do for a TV miniseries in 1989.) You can look at this two ways: It’s Stand By Me with a monster, or seven kids beat up a clown. How’s that for high concept?
Seriously, though, It ruined clowns for a lot of people, thanks to It’s homicidal form, Pennywise the Dancing Clown. Pennywise likes kids the way WC Fields liked them. Well, actually, WC Fields said he liked them roasted over an open fire. Pennywise likes them raw and screaming. Pennywise is a very old being that crash landed in Derry, Maine (because Castle Rock is too small for King’s purposes here) and feeds on fear. And flesh. Every 27 years or so, a horrific event such as a mass murder awakens It. It feeds. Then sometime over the next year or two, a catastrophe signals It to go back to sleep.
Only seven kids have noticed something’s not right. It begins in 1958 when stuttering Bill Denbrough’s brother is killed. Shortly afterward, he sees strange things in his late brother’s room, like his brother winking at him from a photograph. He’s not the only one who’s noticed. Weird things happen to spook Eddie Kapsbrack, Richie Tozier, Ben Hanscomb, Beverly Marsh, Stanley Uris, and Mike Hanlon. They band together and stalk It to its underground lair and very nearly kill It.
Twenty-seven years later, in 1985, It emerges again. Mike Hanlon, now the town librarian, summons the others back, opening a floodgate of repressed memories and driving one of the original “Losers Club” to suicide. But they’re not the only ones who remember. It remembers. It springs childhood psycopath Henry Bowers from a nearby mental hospital to stalk the adult Losers. As if that’s not enough, they’re now over 30 and down one person. They’re worried the childhood magic is gone.
It is an incredibly complex novel, different from The Stand and more like King’s later long work. The edition I read (a paperback from the 1990’s) checks in at 1100 pages. King is hit or miss with later efforts of such length, but It crystalizes what King’s work is all about. The relationship between the seven childhood friends and their fear, more of losing that childlike sense of wonder that defeated It originally. Really, It is the catalyst to push these seven together, to drive one to suicide and another to “marry her father” in the form of an abusive husband while another marries “his mother.” Plus, It fleshes out King’s fictional Maine in a way the earlier Castle Rock novels did not. But then Castle Rock and Salem’s Lot were really small town Maine. Derry stands in for Bangor, being portrayed as one of Bangor’s sizeable suburbs and drawing much of its urban character from Bangor. This could easily have been an expanded version of The Body (on which Stand By Me is based.)
But King is a horror writer before anything else. And Pennywise is one of his most frightening creations, a clown whose true form would make HP Lovecraft run screaming into the night and cause the Great Cthulu to curl up in the fetal position and whimper.
I would say this one is King’s second best novel, after The Stand. If the seventies and eighties were King’s classic period, then It marks a fitting end to that chapter of his career.