Book Review: Joyland, by Stephen King
Despite my acknowledged predilections, both personal and professional–and a firm belief that life’s too short to read things you don’t like–, I will occasionally branch out. It’s nice to be rewarded for that.
There is little about the surface of this book which puts it in my wheelhouse. I have never been a fan of Stephen King’s writing. Don’t ask me why; his prose has just never sat right with me. Plus, crime stories have rarely excited me either (Sherlock Holmes not withstanding). What drew me to this book was the spookily nostalgic promise of a carnival. The titular setting is an old-fashioned, independent amusement park along a beach in North Carolina. Between early exposure to Ray Bradbury and a childhood of Trimper’s Amusements in Ocean City, Maryland, I am a hopeless sucker for a lit ferris wheel and a hall of mirrors. So, the setting got me in the door, as it were, but the surprising heart of this book kept me long into the night.
This book is neither a horror novel nor a crime novel, and when those elements do creep in (mostly towards the end), I found myself wishing they hadn’t. From a craft/plot perspective, I understand why King wanted to resolve the murder mystery, but by the time he does that storyline is entirely submerged beneath the characters he has developed. At its core, Joyland is about heartbreak and loss and the various ways we humans try to deal with those plights.
Devin Jones is a college student who is hopelessly in love with a girl lost to the bright lights of Boston (which, by the way, is something only a Mainer like King would write about). He lands a job working at Joyland for the summer and decidedly does not get the girl. There is no summer romance. In fact, the first girl goes to the guy across the hall, the second is a ghost, and third, well, that’s complicated. There is no satisfying romantic conclusion for Devin. He pines and he regrets and he makes decisions about these women, both right and wrong. In that cocktail is a reality of life so crystalline in its clarity, so precise in its prose, that it rises to the level of poetry. What’s more is that Devin doesn’t own the stage here. The three girls who enter his life that summer of 1973–Erin, Linda, and Annie–all express regret, grief even, that is honest and meaningful and there to be felt by the reader. Some of these emotions are turned towards Devin, but most are not, and that makes them all the more poignant. Had this just been a story about a boy trying to work past his first real heartbreak, it would have been a throw-away novel. Instead, by creating an escalating scale of importance and intensity through these three women, King shows his reader that there is more to lose in life than a romance.
This is a great summer book, but one, I fear, which will go underrated for a long time. The setting is spot-on, without a hint of anachronism. The characters are endearing, entertaining, and worth caring about. Even the mystery is satisfying in its place. My only complaint is that the language gets incongruously coarse in the last chapters, as the murder gets wrapped up. I think King ushers that in to show a change in a particular character, which is a choice I can understand making, but not one which I think was essential. Even still, this hiccup doesn’t detract from the novel’s cathartic work. And make no mistake, that is a very real element here. I don’t think it will bring you to tears on the beach–King’s prose is too sparse for that–but it will demand something of you emotionally. That was a cost I didn’t expect to pay at the start, but one well worth it in the end.