Rating:Though he’s up to his usual tricks – the main character is a writer from Maine, the prose is littered with nostalgic remembrances of a simpler time, a clairvoyant young boy is shoehorned into the narrative, a wily killer is on the loose – it’s still satisfying fun to read Stephen King’s new book. If you have a vacation coming up, especially one that will involve waiting around in airports, or if work is going to be slow during the summer months, go and pick up Joyland. It’s nothing special; King can’t resist working in a lot of hokum about God touching our everyday lives, and his coming-of-age-story is about as old as the novel itself. But with a craftsman as solid and sincere as King, those don’t come off as demerits so much as reassuring old habits. As a refined, aging novelist, King is an expert at just about everything except pushing himself out of his comfort zone.
The kid coming of age in this one is called Devin Jones. Devin is both a 21-year-old virgin on a summer break from college, and a fairly obvious stand-in for a young Stephen King. The year is 1973, and the summer is spent down south of New England, where Devin scores a beautifully crummy job as a janitor and ride-jockey at a North Carolina amusement park whose name gives the book its title. The whole thing is very colloquially written in the past tense, allowing King to saturate every page in nostalgia when he chooses to, by a 60-year-old Devin – by now a cancer-survivor and moderately successful writer – fondly remembering the best summer he ever had.
King divides the short novel roughly in two (though there are no chapters, he merely divides episodes of narrative up into 4-5 page sections each separated by the shape of a tiny heart, meant to be a reminder that the story is more about losing innocence and learning about love than killers and telepathic kids). The first half is all summer of ’73. King follows Devin through the trials and tribulations of carny life as he struggles to forget the college chick who dumped him and devote his mind to a new kind of love, his unexpectedly blissful job. These are the episodic parts of the story: Devin learns the carny Talk, all about how to dupe the Rubes who frequent the amusement park; he Heimlichs a little girl choking on a hot dog and becomes a small-town hero; he gets real chummy with two other college kids learning the carny trade; and he hears whispers, from the park’s half-charlatan fortune teller, of a savage murder that took place in the stomach of a Joyland ride a few summers previous.
The second half, as Devin’s friends go back to school while he stays on to become a professional carny, leaves the pure nostalgia behind, for the most part, and gets on with a bit of plot. Devin plays amateur sleuth trying to finger the Joyland killer, and he befriends a boy dying of muscular dystrophy, along with his lovely young mother. The boy seems to have what the fortune teller, again helpfully aiding King in his plot movements, refers to as “the sight”, and also happens to be the estranged grandson of a famous televangelist. The sighted boy, the young mother, the fortune teller, the televangelist and the killer quickly coalesce into a final fifty pages that show King reaching for a bit more than nostalgic remembrance. In particular, The televangelist and his gifted grandson strike on one of King’s pet themes: he likes to play around in familiar territory without going too deep, but read enough of him and it becomes unmistakable how passionately he believes in a god and how contemptuously he views mainstream religion.
The first part is slow-going. King is a bit too gauzy in his scene-making and simplistic in his characterization to make his idealized past affecting: he justifies the one-trait-per-character style of most of the carnies by having Devin-the-narrator inform us that Joyland is a place out of a simpler time, an old-style amusement park, the kind that’s long since gone the way of the nickelodeon, to be replaced by Six Flags and Disneyworld. Whether or not that’s true, and whether or not King means for the simplicity to be the book’s defining trait, none of his creations really register until he starts to dig a little deeper into Devin and the clairvoyant kid in the second half.
The mystery is resolved, perfunctory but satisfying, and Devin’s lessons in young love, coming from the boy’s mother and the fortune teller, are as sweet as you’d imagine a softy like King would write them. Because he likes to make his love of mid-century Americana the most salient part of his prose, King returns again and again to lovingly sepia-toned phrases – kisses are “smackaroos”, hearts are “tickas”, and all food that isn’t double-fried is regarded as strange enough to be unholy. So it’s not so much littered with nostalgia for the days of King’s youth as positively slathered in it. It’s a short book that won’t likely stand out among King’s oeuvre a hundred years from now, but for a wildly successful novelist who is admirably still pushing himself to write real stories, Joyland is an able reiteration of the simple loves King has turned into his art.