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  • TITLE: Joyland
  • AUTHOR: Stephen King
  • GENRE:Crime



That fall was the most beautiful of my life. Even forty years later I can say that. And I was never so unhappy, I can say that, too. People think first love is sweet, and never sweeter than when that first bond snaps. You've heard a thousand pop and country songs that prove the point; some fool got his heart broke. Yet that first broken heart is always the most painful, the slowest to mend, and leaves the most visible scar.

p.12, lead paragraph


I haven't read King in awhile. I forgot how easy it is to fall in step with him. I own over 40 of his books and have read a little over half of them. But even if I work on only one of his page-turners every year starting now, I doubt if I will finish before my demise. Not considering future works, he's now written over 50 books that have sold a staggering 350 million copies. So, no problemo assembling his work, only finishing it.

That said, it is not surprising that Joyland is, ah, a joy to read. It is so smooth; giving just the right amount of character and location to sit down in a comfortable chair and lose yourself in Carny Town for 2-3 hours at a time. Yes, most of the story takes place on the midway with its booths of rigged skill, rides of contained fright, and sideshows of the weird and mesmerizing, not to mention their ingrained salacity. And, yes, the plot's firing pin is solving its murders. And, double-yes, there's a supernatural element, although the "ghost" of the story is more a trigger than a bullet.

The thing to remember about Joyland is that it is a life turned backwards with speculation by the narrator, Devin Jones, a "twenty-one-year-old virgin with literary aspirations"(p.12). This is full nostalgia with its list of "firsts", including witnessing the one that is unwelcome and inescapable:


Things that happened once upon a time and long ago, in a magical year when oil sold for eleven dollars a barrel. The year I got my damn heart broke. The year I lost my virginity. The year I saved a nice little girl from choking and a fairly nasty old man from dying of a heart attack (the first one, at least). The year a madman almost killed me on a Ferris wheel. The year I wanted to see a ghost and didn't . . . although I guess at least one of them saw me. That was also the year I learned to talk a secret language, and how to dance the Hokey Pokey in a dog costume. The year I discovered that there are worse things than losing the girl.

Devin Jones, p.279.


Powerful stuff, especially when "touching another world"(p.158) is tossed in as a guidepost to temporal trails. Mikethe 10-year-old with deadly MD who faces his wheelchair and prognosis with "a kind of gloomy realism"(p.159)is the flagpole for sensitivity, compassion, and the opposite of prayer peddlers like his evangelical grandfather. Madam Fortunathe obligatory séance snarker "packaged in glittering carny bullshit", with a mesmerizing madball and gypsy robesgets a sympatric pass with "some small bit of authentic psychic ability amped up by a shrewd understanding of human nature"(p.158). Even Devin's fellow Happy Hound(1), Tom Kennedy sees the ghost of the dead girl in the Horror House ride.

But Joyland is not about the supernatural. First of all, the phantasmagoric is not a malign influence, it is a guide, a sourceif you willto the truth. King uses a broader definition of "ghost" to haunt Devin: "the horrifying realization that I had been really and truly rejected for the first time in my life"(p.90). The spectral reality pales in comparison to the human horror of abduction, torture, rape, and throat cutting perpetrated by the Funhouse Killer. A live, human bane, murder. But King doesn't leave you on the pity pot to wail about abominable conduct. In the sub-plot, Devin befriends Mike, a doomed child, to live and enjoy his short life to its fullest. There are physical locations that help bring people together. And this story moves around not in a fairway of swindlers, pickpockets, and bullies, but one that's "a little old and a little rickety, but . . . charming . . .


"We fly a bit more by the seat of our pants, herethe place has a little of the old-time carny flavor. Go on, look around. See what you think. More important, see how you feel."



Bradley Easterbrook, the 93-year-old owner of Joyland, says it simply: "we sell fun"(p.60). As the author's mouthpiece, this supports the book's title like a centerpole, as King leads another path through accepted genres with Joyland: is it Mystery? Horror? Gothic? As the lead quote of this review declares, thismore than anyis a Coming-Of-Age story, a la a sweet Stephen King.


1) Joyland's mascot is Howie the Happy Hound. Most employees have to do "Wiggle-Waggle" time by "putting on the fur" and mingling with the rubes just as Mickey does in Disneyland. Joyland is a stationary amusement park, not a traveling carnival.

text only © copyright 12/02/2017 by Larry Crawford

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