Joyland (Hard Case Crime) seems at first a change-up by genre master Stephen King. It has many qualities found in his other books, but violates fan expectations in ways that are very pleasant and surprising. Joyland is not really a genre novel at times, but a slice-of-life novel, a warm-hearted carnival picaresque of times gone by.
At least for a while.
Some readers may feel misled, considering the reputations of both Big Steve and Hard Case Crime, the publisher highly regarded for its pulp catalog of both new and vintage novels. Pulp fans should be warned, for what the lurid cover promises is not quite what awaits them inside. Joyland is not a novel for the hard-boiled.
Joyland is a novel of Summers past, a lazy reverie, a tender reflection on lost youth. It may be dedicated to Donald Westlake, but I was much reminded of another poet of American boyhood, Ray Bradbury.
King takes us to North Carolina, Summer of 1973. Devin Jones, a college student suffering from a miserable breakup and sliding toward slackitude, takes a summer job with Joyland amusement park, a mid-sized carnival of a kind seldom seen now: colorful, and grubby; cheap, dowdy, charming, run by an elderly, benevolent owner and a crowd of lifelong carny misfits. We Sell Fun is their proud motto. It’s all they care about, all they need to care about.
For much of the way, Joyland and Stephen King sell fun better than anyone. The first three-quarters of this sun-splashed novel are sheer delight, full of the finest, most playful and relaxed writing I’ve ever seen from King, full of melancholy love for carnivals past, and the gritty folks who worked them, all evoked with careful details and spiced with a dictionary’s worth of tasty carny lingo (some of it well-invented by the author.) King captures the everyday details and rhythms of carnival life with easy, familiar poetry. Joyland may make you sorry you didn’t run away with the carnival when you had the chance. It may a little sorry I didn’t stick with theatre (but just a little).
Older readers may be reminded of another Summer-of-My-Youth classic The Summer of ’42 (a novel actually derived from a hit 1972 film). It has an honest nostalgia for youth balanced with insight into its anguish, confusion, humiliations, and frailties. It’s written with an older man’s mixture of tender memory and wise disdain. A sense of “I know better now, but wasn’t it sweet then?”
But then, as it must, Summer ends. And once Joyland’s Summer ends, the plot begins. Too bad, because once it raises its musty, familiar head, the story world fragments into a predictable chain of not-so-suspenseful events, involving murders and ghosts, tricked out with an element from The Shining.
It’s saved by a good ending, but I was left wondering if, for once, King might have conjured a different plot or jettisoned plot altogether and let his weave of events conclude at season’s end. There was enough magic in its setting and characters. It needed no more. As the Summer closed, I wished the book had closed with it.
Copyright 2012 by Thomas Burchfield
Photo by authorThomas Burchfield has just completed BUTCHERTOWN , a 1920s gangster shoot-'em-up. He can be “friended” on Facebook and tweeted at on Twitter. You can also join his e-mail list via tbdeluxe [at] sbcglobal [dot] net. He lives in Northern California with his wife, Elizabeth.