"The conies have to leave happy, or this place dries up and blows away. I've seen it happen, and when it does, it happens fast. It's an amusement park, young Mr. Jones, so pet the conies and give their ears only the gentlest of tugs. In a word, amuse them." (24)
Stephen King's June 2013 release has a few scares, to be certain, and touches of the supernatural, but it's no horror novel. It's a Bildungsroman, but the protagonist is twenty-one during the novel's main events, and we see little of his childhood. The marketing and retro-pulp cover suggest a crime novel and, while this may be accurate, the mystery hanging over this book drives only the last third of the plot.
No, in terms of genre, this is a yarn, and a darn good yarn.
In the summer of 1973, a college student gets a job at an old-fashioned amusement park. While undergoing enough coming-of-age experiences to fill a season of summer movies, he learns the park's dark ride may really be haunted. Someone murdered a young woman there, not too long ago, and the crime has not been solved. Can young Devin and his new friends accomplish what the police could not?
King has penned one of the most compulsively readable books I've encountered in a long time. Inspired by summer paperback reading of yore, he has given us a likeable hero, a brilliantly-evoked setting, and a page-turner of a yarn. We're in a dream of a failing amusement park, in a specific era, during a prototypical twenty-first year of life. Devin bemoans a lost love with the excess of a man his age, meets engaging new friends, and finds himself drawn, slowly but certainly, to the mystery that haunts the park. Joyland has its flaws, but Stephen King could teach a few things about storytelling to certain more literary writers who disdain, well, Stephen King.
I believed in the major characters, and accepted the minor ones—though the cast has more than a touch of cliché. Devin meets an amusement-park psychic who may be the real deal, a precocious, lovable kid who suffers from a disability, and a ghost who haunts a fake haunted house-- among others. Somehow, Joyland makes this brew interesting and memorable. King may wink at us occasionally, but he takes the business of storytelling seriously. He also proves us much a master of sentiment as suspense.
King, even in his most horrific outings, has always shown a sentimental side and, oh lord, especially in the final third, does Joyland turn hokey. I'm surprised Hollywood hasn't already released the movie.1. The first pages prepared me for this aspect (you might say that it's part of the genre), and I enjoyed the book, but I could not keep my eyes from rolling at times, especially once the idealized disabled kid and his troubled but noble single mother rolled into the story. The climax, in particular, may challenge your willingness to suspend incredulity.
Never mind. King spins one hell of a yarn. "Life is not always a butcher's game," says our hero, referring to rigged carnival games, and you can't save everyone, but "sometimes the prizes are real." Get it now; Joyland is quality summer reading.
Author: Stephen King
First published in June 2013
ISBN: 1781162646, 978-1781162644
1. The movie will be out, tentatively, in 2015.