Stephen King has been particularly prolific in the last several years, putting out one or more novels annually. As a relatively new Stephen King fan, I had to check out 2013’s Joyland, King’s second novel after 2005’s The Colorado Kid for the Hard Case Crime imprint. As usual, King was full of surprises.
I was expecting a rather straightforward murder mystery, but found myself consumed by something larger — an often sweet, sometimes weepy coming-of-age story whose characters have stayed with me long after finishing the book. I didn’t expect to be so touched, but of course, this is Stephen King so I should have anticipated the unexpected.
Devin Jones is a broke 21-year-old college student who takes a job at a carnival in North Carolina during the summer of 1973. As Devin gets to know the colorful regulars who work at the park, he learns of the tragedy that happened some four years earlier. A young woman named Linda Gray had been killed in the park’s Horror House, a haunted house ride. Ms. Gray had been thrown onto the ride’s tracks by an unidentified man. Carnival employees claim that they see Gray’s ghost, at various times, hanging around the Horror House. Devin is intrigued by the story and embarks on an investigation to uncover Linda Gray’s killer, who may still be alive and lurking around.
This is the set-up for the book; however, the most intriguing parts of the story, the real meat of the book, had very little to do with the Linda Gray murder mystery. Rather, the most intriguing parts of the story had more to do with Devin’s journey to adulthood. You see, Devin Jones is nursing a broken heart. Still pining for his college sweetheart who dumped him – a woman who no longer has feelings for him, if she ever did – the Linda Gray murder mystery provides Devin with a welcome, albeit disturbing, distraction.
Along the way, Devin meets Mike (an outgoing young boy who is dying from Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy) and Annie (young Mike’s reclusive mother who may be hiding some kind of secret). While Mike’s enthusiasm for squeezing the most out of a life that is slipping away prompts the depressive Devin to consider his own life anew, Devin discovers with the thirty-something-year-old Annie a deeper attachment than he’d ever had with the college sweetheart who broke his heart.
Devin’s relationship with Mike and Annie dovetails with the Linda Gray murder mystery in interesting ways. Even so, the murder mystery itself is almost pushed to the background until the very end of the novel. That’s okay though, because what we grow to care most about is Devin’s relationship with Mike and Annie and Devin’s growth as a person.
The power of Joyland the novel derives, in part, from its strong sense of place. Joyland the carnival feels so real because Stephen King immerses you – the reader of Joyland — in the language of “carnies” (carnival workers). For example, “wearing the fur” means donning the costume of the park’s mascot Howie the Happy Hound and entertaining the visiting kids, an act Devin becomes intimately familiar with. And a “conie” is an unsuspecting visitor, one who can be easily conned or manipulated.
Joyland is a tearjerker, so get the tissues ready. Joyland is also oddly uplifting, and the pay-off at the end is well worth the ride. If you’d prefer to check out the audiobook version of Joyland, don’t hesitate, because Michael Kelly does an excellent job of narration.
Check the WRL Catalog for Joyland