It’s a pleasure for me to say that “Joyland” is one of Stephen King’s best books in years and one of my favorites.
I went into “Joyland” with some expectations, certainly. At fewer than 300 pages, the story – about a young man’s summer working in a low-rent amusement park – promised to be lean and – because of the Hard Case Crime publishing house imprint, complete with 1950s-paperback-style cover and packaging – mean.
Well, the book isn’t all that mean, although there’s a thrilling climax with high stakes for hero Devin Jones. There’s a bittersweet and nostalgic tone to the book. But “Joyland” has its creepy moments.
It’s been a while since I bought and read everything King published as it hit bookstores. Looking at a list of his books just now, I’m kind of startled and chagrinned about how early I checked out on him.
After all, the guy wrote “Carrie” and “Salem’s Lot” and “The Stand,” three of my favorite reads. “The Stand” in particular is a classic and I’ve read and re-read its 800-plus pages.
King still had me for years to follow those three masterpieces. I enjoyed the “Night Shift” collection and “The Dead Zone” and “Firestarter” and “Danse Macabre,” his combination autobiography and fond look at his genre. “Cujo” and “Pet Cemetery” and “Christine” were still great reads, as was “The Talisman,” a “Stand”-like cross-country adventure he co-wrote with Peter Straub. Part of the book even takes place a few miles from where I’m sitting right now.
But after the simple pleasures of “Misery,” I struggled with “It,” as much as I liked it, and never made it through “Thinner.” I fell away from King after that, never reading a single book he turned out in the 1990s and much of the 2000s. I re-read “The Stand,” though.
Then I jumped back into King’s camp with some of his later books. Sure, “Under the Dome” had an ending that fizzled but the epic 2009 story – at a thousand pages – was compelling. So was “11-22-63,” his 2011 story about time travel and the Kennedy assassination.
I can’t say I was relieved that “Joyland” was a few hundred pages shorter than those books. Surely, thought, King will stick the landing and come up with the great ending some of his books lack.
And yeah, he did.
“Joyland” is a memory recounted, in relaxed fashion, by Devin Jones, who as a college student in 1973 gets a job working at Joyland, a small amusement park in North Carolina. Dev is trying to recover from a bad break-up and some time away from college is just what he needs. He meets fellow summer jobseekers Erin and Tom and the three become a trio working under carnys both collegial and hostile.
Dev also meets Annie and Mike, a single, 30-something mom and her son, a young boy with muscular dystrophy. They live just up the beach near Joyland and Dev waves to Mike, sitting in a wheelchair on the beach, each day on his way to work.
Mike greets Dev every morning but Annie is alternately aloof and hostile. Like a lot of single moms of special needs kids, she’s fiercely protective, so when Dev is befriended by the mom and son, it feels like a plot milestone.
Propelling the story besides Dev’s growing and deepening friendships with Erin, Tom and Annie and Mike is a mystery. A few years ago, a young woman was murdered on the Horror House, Joyland’s only “dark” ride. The killer remains on the loose and, Dev and Erin find, is likely responsible for other slayings over the years.
And did I mention the ghost? Or the supernatural talent that young Mike possesses that will seem kind of familiar to readers of King’s fiction?
One reason I was drawn to “Joyland” was the carnival where the story unfolds. Carnivals and sideshows have always been fascinating to me, and King creates one that feels utterly realistic, from the description of duty inside a mascot costume to the crooked-or-not nature of games of skill.
King is an immensely talented writer, but some of his books feel like he’s having more fun than others. “Joyland” might have more cotton candy than grit, but it feels like King’s having fun. So we do too.