If you’ve been reading here for a while, you’ll know that Teresa and I are both big Stephen King fans. In fact, I used to be able to say that I’d read all of King’s traditionally published novels (i.e., I missed some of his work published in other formats — only as an e-book, or only as a graphic novel.) I think now I’ve missed one or two, and some of his nonfiction, but I’m close. So when I saw his novel Joyland — his second effort for the Hard Case Crime imprint — I snapped it up, knowing my chances were good that I’d enjoy it.
King’s first novel for Hard Case Crime, The Colorado Kid, wasn’t traditional pulp. (Most of what they offer is — people like James M. Cain, Donald Westlake, and new authors who write in that same vein.) There was no sex, no violence, maybe no crime, and no real solution offered to the mystery. It was a yarn told by two old-timers to a young woman, letting her into the old boys’ club, and allowing the solution to remain ambiguous. It was an odd little book — and I do mean little, clocking in at about 180 pages or so, very unusual for King — but it was atmospheric and interesting, and left me with the feeling that there was more to be uncovered.
In some ways, Joyland, also a short novel for King (close to 300 pages), is more in the spirit of pulp, but it doesn’t exactly walk the mean streets. The narrator, Devin Jones, is a college kid who has taken a summer job at Joyland in 1973, an amusement park in North Carolina. Some of the most interesting and entertaining parts of the book have to do with his learning the park: the language of the old-time carnies, the rides, the “wearing of the fur” (you’ll see), and most of all the selling of fun.
But of course there’s more to it than that. Some years ago, the park was the site of a vicious murder, and there are rumors that the haunted house is… er… haunted. Who killed Linda Gray? There’s a child sitting on the beach with his mother who might be able to help with that question. How? You’ll have to find out for yourself.
To be honest, if The Colorado Kid could be accused of not having enough going on in it, Joyland has too much, and it suffers for being only (!) 300 pages long. There’s the storyline of Devin’s extreme heartbreak when his college girlfriend Wendy breaks up with him. There’s the murder, split into two stories: the ghost, and trying to track down the murderer. There’s the everyday job of working at the park. And there’s the child and his mother. In the end, all those balls can’t stay in the air well enough; they are all resolved, but some of them feel anticlimactic, and some of them feel overdone and overhyped. The breakup was especially wearying, as it doesn’t really have much to do with the main story, and it causes the adult Devin, who is our narrator, to say a couple of misogynistic things that jar unpleasantly with the nice-college-kid Devin we are following. Dude. You’re in your sixties and you’re still this bitter about a one-year college relationship? Get a grip.
That said, though, Joyland may be a little overstuffed, but it was still really enjoyable. Weed out a couple of the plot lines, and you’ve got a fun pulp novel in a nonstandard location that was vividly evoked, with good characters and an interesting ending. The blurb on the back of the novel compared this to The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption… well, no. But it was a lot of fun, and a quick read, and I’d recommend it on that basis to anyone.