Joyland – Stephen King

4 out of 5


When I was a young reader, still trying to find my niche of books, Stephen King was a constant recommendation. Shouldn’t be surprising: The Stand seemed to exist on everyone’s bookshelf, and so as soon as you were seen toting around a book, being told to check out King was fair game.

It wasn’t just the size of some of his novels that was a deterrent – though they were often longer than what I was currently reading – or even that I’d look at those Stand-containing bookshelves and see other books I didn’t quite care about, it was that nothing I sampled or, in movie version, watched, encouraged me much. To the latter, I know Stephen King adaptations have generally been imperfect (especially when adhering to the source material…), but to the former, more than once, some “you haven’t read King?” non-believer would provide for me a choice passage to check out, and boy-o, did I not care. The style just felt so obvious to me. I didn’t get it.

But this is just one reader’s opinion, who ended up going the Vonnegut / Heller way of fiction.

Every handful of years since, a King recommendation will float back round, often accompanying an actual physical book to try, and I’ve still not had any luck.

The first thing I was “required” to read fully was because it was part of the Hard Case Crime imprint, which I follow: The Colorado Kid. It did not change my opinion.

And now Joyland, which makes many mistakes for my tastes up front – not having chapters; using lil’ heart emblems for scene separations (these are both structural details that turn me off); trying to play up the horror – because it’s King – on the back cover, then mentioning that it’s heartwarming in the same breath; and getting into the writing itself, that it’s awash in nostalgia – echoes of Colorado Kid again – and that it uses one of my least favorite writing devices: intimating scary things will be happening, but using a flashback point of view, i.e. nothing bad will happen to our narrator.

But on the way though these 280ish pages, I quickly realized something: that King can be a fantastic writer. Perhaps in trying to deliver to me some encapsulated experience, the foisted-upon examples I tried failed because this effect is rather slowburn: King doesn’t have the sharpest turns of phrase, or an especially notable “voice,” but, at least in Joyland, the style is immersively organic. Devin – our POV – speaks, and I get along with him; I can see what he sees, and experience what he experiences, and that is the draw, because not much else actually happens in Joyland. And that might be its additional “fix” over Colorado Kid, which sort of faked being about something but was about nothing, whereas Joyland is rather up front about its casual nature, and purposefully shrugs off those horror elements. Like, yeah, don’t worry, they exist, but they’re unimportant. That they’re kept at a low boil adds to that organic vibe, reminding of whatever low-key intrigues used to obsess you as a youth; and when the final run of pages does produce scenes that are actually worthy of being aligned with Hard Case Crime – since the rest of the book is just, like, a chronicle of Devin’s time off from college, working at the carnival, getting his mind off a girl – it’s a grand “punchline;” a pleasing surprise, that that low-key bit turned out to be something after all.

The bits and bobs of slice of life tales that, in my experience, are normally overwrought are really gracefully handled here – Devin’s ex-girlfriend obsessions are tempered by the nature of this being a flashback, and he can curb some of the drama and give it a mature retrospective; the buddy-buddy moments alongside his friends / fellow carnys is rolled into day-to-day activities, such that the book always has momentum; and as Devin goes through the emotional highs and lows of young adulthood, it’s similarly balanced – King uses the slang and behind-the-scenes antics of the carnival to anchor the character, and the book’s tone.

This still doesn’t ultimately solve that the book isn’t about anything, which means that it ultimately doesn’t have much impact; it still does primarily just revel in the nostalgia of youth, then fade away. But I can finally appreciate the way people mentioned getting swept up in a King novel, assuming he’s brought this same casual confidence to some of his other books.