“Joyland”, an Amusement Park in North Carolina in 1973, sells fun to all the
rubes conies who walk through its gates. In “Joyland” the novel, Stephen King sells his readers a total immersion in a time long past, in a youth long-lost and in a Carnie culture now extinct. He sells the possibility of abilities beyond the normal and most of all he sells the possibility that ordinary young people can do things that make the world better.
Part of King’s power to immerse us in “Joyland” is that he doesn’t just set his story in 1973 and hope to take you there. He has the story told as what the now-sixty-year-old Devin Jones remembers of the summer, forty years earlier, that changed the life of his younger self.
This looking back changes the nature of the telling. It gives us the views and experiences of Devin then and Devin now. It gifts us with both intimacy and distance. It also allows the sixty-year-old Devin to be wiser and more articulate than a young man in his twenties was likely to be, which means king can stud his prose with pleasing phrases, that enhance the text the way herbs and spice enliven food. Here’s an example that says something I know to be true better than I would be able to say it and yet is still a phrase that fits neatly in the story and comes believably off the tongue of the narrator.
“When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.”
Although this book is short by Stephen King standards (283 page) it is as richly textured as any of his novels.
The background is given by the “Carnie” world which exists as an invisible overlay on the world the visitors see. It has its own language, rituals, roles and rules and King brings them all to life the eyes of a young man hungry for something to become part of.
The plot is driven partly by a murder mystery, with Devin trying to discover who killed the pretty girl who is now thought to haunt the House of Horror ride and by a strong sense of foreboding imparted by a the predictions of Carnie fortune teller,’ who may actually have flashes of The Sight, for people Devin needs to look out for.
The emotional impact of the book comes from Devin Jones’ coming of age story. We see him fall in love with Carnie life because it allows him to become someone more than he has been. When he “wears the fur” and becomes a loveable dog character, he discovers that he can make kids light up with joy, He finds that he wants to be the bringer of all good thing and this leads him to fall in love first with a dying boy he sees each day on the boardwalk and then with the boy’s mother because of her love for the boy and her strength and of course, because she’s hot.
As I read this book, I was so pleased with it that I wondered whether King’s normal “woo-woo” topics would spoil my pleasure by force-fitting the supernatural onto a story that was already compelling. I should have had more faith. As he did with “The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon”, King weaves the supernatural in to enhance the story, rather than letting it become the story. He makes The Sight and ghosts feel as real as the rides in Amusement Park.
King avoids clichéed romance and tacky nostalgia by being deeply truthful. He also fits every emotional button available with merciless skill, leaving his readers feeling they too have been for a hell of a carnie ride.
I listened to the audiobook version of “Joyland” which is expertly performed by Michael Kelly who manages to give just the right mix of innocence and regret to Devin Jones.