Review: Joyland / Author: Stephen King / Publisher: Titan / Release Date: Out Now
Joyland, which is King's second novel under Titan's Hard Case Crime imprint, is the reminiscence of Devin Jones, a college student who spends the summer of 1973 working at the titular amusement park in North Carolina. It is, on the face of it, a friendly place. ‘At Joyland’, park owner Bradley Easterbrook insists, ‘we sell fun’.
It’s fun for the staff as much as it is the punters and Devin’s arrival is warmly greeted by the vivid characters in and around the carny. Everything is presented as coming very easily, the only dramatic tension being provided by the rapidly weakening relationship with Wendy, his girl back home. That their relationship is doomed is telegraphed from her very first mention, when Devin labels her ‘the heartbreaker’, robbing the novel of tension. Other efforts at signalling doom chime with obviousness and harmlessness. Gently sinister hints are made about the duty of 'wearing the fur', but you don’t need to have been to Disneyland to know what this means.
Although the use of an off-season resort as a setting may recall The Shining, the novel is closer in spirit to The Body. Its primary concern is with Devin’s misty-eyed recollection of a key year in his young adulthood, and of the formative experiences that he goes through. The Hard Case Crime imprint may suggest cynical brutishness, while the King name may imply horror, but the crimes are not particularly hardboiled and the supernatural elements lack malevolence. Indeed, there are moments in the book where the temptation to think of it as an extended episode of Scooby-Doo becomes overwhelming, which King would have gotten away with too, if it hadn’t been for that pesky carnival setting.
That may be a little unfair, not least because the carny atmosphere is the book's strongest hand, particularly in the exotic argot that Devin and the reader pick up along the way. The secret language and rituals of the carny folk are putty in the hands of a writer such as King, who is so capable with the casual late 20th century demotic. His folksy wisdom, presented frequently as knowing asides, give it the flavour of a tale told by a friendly grandfather, tongue loosened by a few tinnies around a beach campfire. This is King writing in a minor key, warm, pleasant but undemanding.
It is, somewhat appropriately for a coming-of-age story, rather sentimental. While this occasionally becomes cloying, it’s hard not to be swept along by Devin’s youthful enthusiasm. The best way to appreciate the book is to absorb it impressionistically, as a lovestruck memoir of the final days of youth. On this reading, it is a very enjoyable, humane novel. Devin is warm, endearing and stacked from top to toe with sympathetic flaws and very easy to root for, while the humid warmth of its Carolinan setting makes it a great pick for holiday reading.