Stephen King’s prolific output features a parade of terrors. Ghosts. Plagues. Haunted cars. Clowns. But his most resonant subject might just be the simple, cruel passage of time. Take It, or Hearts in Atlantis, or the dark boomer-nostalgia epic 11/22/63. For that matter, take Joyland. It’s the story of Devin Jones, a brokenhearted 21-year-old virgin who takes a job at an amusement park in the summer of 1973. But it’s also the story of Devin Jones, a 61-year-old man narrating the tale of his own younger self. Young Devin gets ensnared in a thriller plot. There’s a murder mystery. The carnival’s haunted house might actually be haunted.
But Old Devin — and, by extension, King himself — keeps getting sidetracked. He remembers the peculiar language of the park employees: ”points” for cute girls, ”simp-hoister” for Ferris wheel. He takes special care to address — painfully, playfully — the barely postadolescent sexuality of the 21-year-old American male. He casts a sidelong glance at the advance of the corporate entertainment complex. At one point a character says, ”The Disney parks are scripted, and I hate that…. I’m a seat-of-the-pants fan.” King, an EW contributor, might be explaining his writing process. Or maybe he’s just musing. In Joyland, characters are always musing.
This is the second book King has written for Hard Case Crime, an imprint specializing in old-fashioned pulp. His first entry was The Colorado Kid, a meta-mystery that riffed on genre conventions. Joyland ignores those conventions. The mystery isn’t too mysterious. The ghost hardly appears. Not that much happens, really. A nifty but out-of-nowhere climax suggests that Joyland is really an overgrown short story.
Yet the book also features some of King’s most graceful writing. ”Those are things that happened once upon a time and long ago, in a magical year when oil sold for eleven dollars a barrel,” Old Devin narrates. Joyland is a relatively straightforward story of a young man’s adventure, but it’s written in the complicated voice of a much older man’s memory: ruminative, amused, digressive, marvelously unaffected, and finally, devastatingly sad. B+