Fans of Stephen King are well versed in his abilities as an author, particularly his ability to write many kinds of stories. While he holds a well-earned reputation as a master of horror, King proves once again with Joyland that he doesn’t always need to scare to impress.
If you’re looking for a bloody tale of murder or a story filled with supernatural evil, Joyland is not going to satisfy you. Much of the central mystery has to do with a ghost, and there are a few other bits that are certainly akin to what you’d find in other King novels, but at its core this is a coming of age story. There’s a lot to love about this book, because what it lacks in scares it makes up for in loveable characters and fascinating plot.
The novel is narrated by the protagonist, Devin Jones, as he recalls the events of one very important year in his life. He ends up getting a job at Joyland, a carnival in North Carolina, after his girlfriend,, tells him they need some time apart. Devin is a virgin at twenty-one, still waiting for the day he’ll finally do ‘it.’ It’s no surprise to the reader when Wendy breaks it off with him, leaving him adrift at his new summer job and feeling more than a little lost. After hearing about an unsolved murder that happened at the park and the story of how Linda Gray’s ghost still haunts the ride she was killed in, Devin becomes fascinated with the case. Along with his friends, he climbs onto the ride in the hopes of seeing the spirit. His friend Tom sees her, and is forever changed by the experience.
He learns to enjoy the busy days at work, selling fun to the crowds of visitors that pour in throughout the summer, and eventually he decides to take off the fall semester to continue working there. Something about working at Joyland just seems right to him and he tells us that, “I felt that Joyland had something more to give me. I didn’t know what, just…s’more.” Plus, he desperately wants to catch a glimpse of the ghost. He’s troubled by the murder of Linda Gray, and he enlists the help of a friend to start gathering information that he hopes will lead him to discovering the identity of the killer.
Later, Devin meets Mike and Annie Ross. Annie is the daughter of a famous radio preacher known for his fire-and-brimstone sermons and his supposed miracle working. Having fallen out of favor with her father over her well-publicized exploits as a wild child, Annie lives a quiet life and takes care of her son. Mike is a young boy with muscular dystrophy and an innate ability to see into the minds of others. He knows things he shouldn’t know, and understands far more than most kids his age. Devin quickly grows to admire and care for him due to his defiant courage in the face of his illness. Mike is an extremely memorable character that the reader is not going to forget any time soon. I’ve read quite a few Stephen King novels, and I’ve grown attached to many of his characters. Mike Ross was my favorite part of Joyland, even though he’s not introduced until a little less than half way through the book.
Working at the carnival, Devin learns to talk ‘the Talk’ and becomes very adapt at dressing up as the park’s mascot, Howie the hound, a job they call ‘wearing the fur.’ On his first day, Devin is forced to be a last-minute replacement for a co-worker who was chosen to wear the fur. He rushes to get into costume and shows up at the Wiggle-Waggle (the daycare center at Joyland where parents can drop off their younger kids for a few hours) with no idea of what to do next. He starts dancing once he realizes the Hokey Pokey is playing in the background, and before long he’s being swarmed by a mass of laughing kids. Devin’s initial trepidation, and his discomfort at having to wear the big furry suit, disappears almost instantly:
“As they watched, I began to do the Hokey Pokey…Sorrow and terror over lost parents were forgotten, at least for the time being. They laughed, some with tears still gleaming on their cheeks…I forgot about being hot and uncomfortable. I didn’t think about how my undershorts were sticking in the crack of my ass. Later I would have a bitch of a heat-headache, but just then I felt okay—really good, in fact.”
Devin finds that he’s not only very good at dressing up as Howie, since he eventually becomes the go-to guy for that particular task, but that he actually enjoys it a great deal. The reader shares in these experiences with him and sees the start of Devin’s slow climb out of his depression. These scattered instances, filled with so much joy and light-hearted fun, also work as perfect contrasts to Joyland’s frequently deep and dark reflections on the nature of love, loss, life, and death. What’s most impressive about this is how King manages to create memorable scenes in the novel that are not reliant on their importance to the plot or filled with overly sappy language. The depth of this book’s emotional appeal comes from believable interactions between life-like characters, all of which feel very natural and plausible.
As always, King sets the stage for his story by filling it with characters that are walking, talking examples of local color—in addition to being fully fleshed out, they legitimize the setting and make it feel authentic. Devin meets all different types of people, but the most noteworthy are those he meets at his new job. There’s Rosalind Gold, known to visitors as Madame Fortuna, whose glittery showmanship and fake psychic act are full of irony, as the reader learns that she does possess some latent talent for portending future events. She tells Devin that she sees two people in his future, a little girl with a red hat and little boy with a dog. Or Lane Hardy, a veteran of carnival work who’s always quick to make a joke and becomes good friends with Devin, always spotted wearing his trademark derby hat.
These characters give the reader an entry into the world of carnival workers, and they’re every bit as important as King’s descriptions of the buildings, rides, and games that make up Joyland. They speak in their own familiar dialect and throw around all sorts of ludicrous sounding phrases. In a short author’s note after the text, King goes out of his way to point out that some of the phrases that the Joyland employees use are strictly a product of his imagination. Whether these odd little sayings are real or fiction, they add a distinct sense of flavor to the story. By the time you’re done reading the book, you’ll know what it means to ‘flash a shy.’
Joyland is a very subtly crafted frame story, where the reader is being told the story of a young man from an old man’s perspective. King seamlessly jumps between threads as Devin mixes in anecdotes from later in life and ruminates on the choices he made as a young man. Much of the satisfaction I got from reading this book was a result of its sheer emotional impact. As a narrator, Devin Jones sometimes looks back at his young self with mixed feelings. His honest reflections—about his decisions, his relationships, and his habits—add so much to the story that I couldn’t imagine it being told any other way. As you continue reading and learn more about that fateful year in Devin’s life, you’re also getting to know the man he will become.
Some of the most profound moments of the novel are where Devin stops and reflects. Devin’s mother is a victim of breast cancer, dead at the age of 47, and his father has not always had the easiest time adjusting to life without her. Before leaving to start his new job, Devin sits down for a meal with his dad. Devin acknowledges that his father was not very fond of Wendy, and King writes: “At the time, I thought it was because he was a bit jealous of Wendy’s place in my life. Now I think he saw her more clearly than I could. I can’t say for sure; we never talked about it. I’m not sure men know how to talk about women in any meaningful way.” These few short sentences provide a significant insight into Devin’s family life, showing his struggles to connect with his father and the dichotomy of how a young man perceives jealousy in his father, while an older man sees the concern his dad had for him all along.
The conclusion of the novel is satisfying and offers a fitting end to the story. Some of the questions that have haunted Devin are finally answered. His journey from a heartsick college kid to a mature adult is not over, but he’s well on his way to moving beyond the trappings of his early life. Despite the relatively slow start, the last thirty or so pages fly by at lightning speed and the tension that’s been slowly building finally reaches its climax. Without spoiling anything that happens, all I can say is that King does a remarkable job of tying up the loose ends before it’s all over. The final image that King provides the reader is likely to have an impact—I know it certainly affected me, and I’ve found my thoughts returning to it more than once since I put the book down.
Joyland may not be one of King’s best (that’s asking for a lot), but it is still a great book and well worth your time.