Stephen King | Joyland (Hard Case Crime/Titan Books)

But, for all of that, this is really a story about a young man at a pivotal time in his maturation, as narrated by his older and wiser self. If that reminds you of “The Body”/Stand By Me, well, there are other parallels as well.


288 pages. $12.95 (paperback)
In his introduction to The Best American Short Stories 2007, Stephen King delivers a passionate, funny, and eminently readable diagnosis of the state of American fiction writing. He doesn’t mince words: short fiction in particular appears primarily in expensive literary magazines relegated to the lower (and thus hard to reach) shelves of your friendly local mega-bookstore, while the display tables are filled with the likes of James Patterson and Danielle Steel (and Stephen King).
These literary magazines are relegated to such obscurity, King hypothesizes, because they contain primarily fiction written to impress other writers and teachers of writing, not to provide the general reader with the kind of pleasures, based in sharp observation and well-honed prose, to be obtained by reading, say, Joseph Conrad’s “Youth” or Dorothy Parker’s “Big Blonde.”
I can’t disagree with his diagnosis, nor with his suggestion that the readership of such magazines consists primarily of people who read the stories to try to figure out how they could place a story in said magazine—a practice King, with his gift for combining precision and humor, calls “copping-a-feel reading.”
Fortunately for us all, Stephen King learned to write by writing, getting rejected, and writing some more, with the result that he learned how to tell a good story, honed a distinctive style, and mastered the art of connecting with his audience. His latest novel, Joyland, does not reach the heights of his very best work, but it delivers the reliable pleasures we’ve come to expect from a Stephen King novel.
Although Joyland appears in Titan’s Hard Case Crime series, and has a pulp-worthy cover promising forbidden pleasures in a trip to the seamier side of life, the hard-boiled elements of this novel take a back seat to a sweet coming-of-age story about a college student who learns some valuable life lessons while taking time off from school to work at a small-time carnival in North Carolina (that’s a liminal space within a liminal space, if you’re counting).
Devin Jones is 21 and has just had his heart broken by a girl who he thought, in the way that inexperienced young people often do, is the one for him. She doesn’t agree and throws him over, and an almost random sequence of events bring him to a summer job at Joyland, a distinctly non-Disney theme park staffed by a combination of college students and old-time carnies.
Over the course of the summer, Devin makes a few lifelong friends, learns how to cope with some difficult characters, and becomes intrigued with a murder that took place in the park a few years prior—a beautiful young woman was killed and her body dumped in the park’s haunted house attraction. He decides to take a sort of informal gap year, staying on at Joyland to work while his friends return to school. During this off-season, he befriends a handicapped boy and his protective mother, and all the storylines converge very nicely as the novel comes to a well-orchestrated climax involving guns and carnival rides and people revealing their true nature.
But, for all of that, this is really a story about a young man at a pivotal time in his maturation, as narrated by his older and wiser self. If that reminds you of “The Body”/Stand By Me, well, there are other parallels as well. Here’s how the adult Devin’s summarizes his experiences at Joyland: “I never felt so weirdly happy, so absolutely in-the-right-place, as I did when I was twenty-one, wearing the fur and doing the Hokey Pokey on a hot day in June.”
“Wearing the fur” refers to one of his duties—dancing in an animal costume to amuse the park’s younger visitors—and it’s an example of the carny slang, real and imagined, that King salts throughout the book. Such details are less important, however, than the emotional experience he describes—that of being absolutely at one with your experience, without the over-thinking that often comes with greater maturity. Reading Joyland allows you to recapture that feeling, or at least experience it vicariously, and that alone is enough of a recommendation for this novel. | Sarah Boslaugh
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