Stephen King’s “JOYLAND” (Book Review)
After an uncharacteristically quiet 2012, author and multimedia brand Stephen King is resurfacing with a diverse slate of projects: From the UNDER THE DOME TV adaptation to the big-screen remake of CARRIE to the long-awaited musical theatre experiment GHOST BROTHERS OF DARKLAND COUNTY to King’s risky revisit with THE SHINING’s Danny Torrance in this fall’s novel DOCTOR SLEEP. While most of the aforementioned projects have yet to see release, it’s safe to declare that King’s new paperback original JOYLAND (out now from Hard Case Crime/Titan) will most likely be judged the runt of 2013’s considerable litter.
It’s 1973, and after an intense campus love affair sputters and collapses, heartbroken college sophomore Devin Jones heads down south to take on a summer job at Joyland amusement park. He finds solace working amid the excitement and questionable glitz of Joyland’s crowded byways, along with immersing himself in the peculiar anthropology behind inherited carny customs and language. Devin’s sabbatical then gets serious as he finds himself embroiled in both a domestic drama with an attractive single mom and her terminally-ill son, and the chance to confront the carnival’s unsolved murder case and still very lively resident ghost.
JOYLAND happens to mark Mr. King’s second dance with boutique publishing imprint Hard Case Crime. It’s an aptly-named venue, as King’s first venture with Hard Case marked what this reviewer felt to be a crime perpetrated against his loyal Constant Readers: that teasing stump of a novel called THE COLORADO KID. JOYLAND at the very least trumps its predecessor simply by having a complete story to tell—it could also stand as a kind of companion piece to King’s BLOCKADE BILLY, as both stories are concerned with the rituals and arcana behind a specific and self-contained show business culture; BILLY handling league baseball while JOYLAND tackles the roughshod and kid-coaxing world of carnivals. This aspect provides JOYLAND with its most compelling musings, as King nestles the action into a transitional period before the sawdust, frightening employees, and charming criminalities of the old-style travelling carnivals were disinfected and coated with gloss to create the sanitized corporate theme park of today—though many of those carny traditions still hold intact in their modern incarnations.
The rest of JOYLAND isn’t quite as involving. The amusing carny vernacular is affixed to the corkboard through a number of King staples: the English-major protagonist dreaming of a writing career, characters popping up with latent psychic foresight, a powerful and angry family patriarch, and, as always, a puckish youngster with a wisdom far beyond his single-digit tally of years. It’s mainly melodrama after that, (especially thick and cloying during scenes with Joyland’s quirky carnival crew acting as surrogate family to the confused Devin), and the ghostly murder mystery is definitely a secondary plot concern up until the book’s last third.
JOYLAND does deliver a very trim and speedy read, with little of King’s famed internal monologues, gaping digressions, and general verbal effluence (whether or not this news comes as a positive will depend on the reader), leading one to the impression that this is King coasting in a neutral gear; there are spikes of yummy suspense as Devin digs into the sordid history behind Joyland’s house ghost and during the breathless climax, but it all ends up overwhelmed by a stiff sentimentality throughout. Upon closing the back cover, it feels like JOYLAND is at best a diversion for most long-time King fans, who will then go back to waiting for DOCTOR SLEEP. Here’s hoping SLEEP proves to be more substantial than this sweet-natured but forgettable spin down the midways and sideshows of yesterday.