SPOILERS!!LEAVE!!SPOILERS!!YOU SHOULDN'T BE HERE ANYWAY!!SPOILERS!!SPOILERS!!LEAVE!!
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:
Powerful stuff, especially when "touching another world"(p.158) is tossed in as a guidepost to temporal trails. Mike—the 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 Fortuna—the obligatory séance snarker "packaged in glittering carny bullshit", with a mesmerizing madball and gypsy robes—gets 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 source—if you will—to 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 . . .
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, this—more than any—is 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.