It’s not just the poky pace of his narrator, a lovelorn college student named Devlin Jones. The story is about the year Jones took a job at a North Carolina amusement park and found himself at the center of mystery. It’s a good one, too, involving a man who takes young women into dark places and cuts their throats. But before we get to the good stuff, King makes us listen to this kid as he drones on and on about being dumped by his college sweetheart. The effect is akin to sitting at a party with someone who is determined to not have fun. Jones is just that dreary.Many of the usual King riffs are here, but they’re parceled out in small, barely nourishing dollops.The story is set in the 1970s, so there are some references to The Doors and Pink Floyd, and Devlin reads a lot of Tolkien, but any fun 1970s atmosphere is squashed because Devlin is such a whelp. King probably wants us to appreciate how Devlin goes from being a whining wimp to a hero by the tale’s end, but spending so many pages with a wimp is difficult. There’s even a subplot about Devlin befriending a local boy who is confined to a wheelchair but has psychic gifts so common in King’s stories. The kid also has a sexy young mom that eventually has eyes for Devlin. These are themes that King returns to every so often, the young man and the sexy older woman, and the vulnerable child with special powers. In fact, many of the usual King riffs are here, but they’re parceled out in small, barely nourishing dollops.
Those who like the shock and gore of King’s early novels may find this one to be slow going, and even those who have grown used to the milder tone of his recent novels may be disappointed in the light touch he shows here. While Joyland does indeed have all sorts of potentially interesting ideas – there’s a ghost in the funhouse, and a down at the heels amusement park works well as a symbol for something (I kept thinking it symbolized the horror genre in general, old-fashioned scares being usurped by the degenerates with knives who would gradually infest our highways and movie screens) – it feels like King is pacing himself rather than charging at us full-throttle.
King peppers the story with a lot of ersatz carny talk, but the amusement park never feels like a real place. It feels like Wally World in National Lampoon’s Vacation, and King populates the grounds with all of the standard carny types, ie. fortune tellers, aging impresarios, and grouchy lifers who grumble and call Devlin “Kiddo.” Part of Devlin’s job is to wear a dog suit and entertain the children, or “wearing the fur,” as it’s called at Joyland. Dev, though, wants to see the ghosts that everyone keeps talking about. He never does. There could have been an interesting story about a man who wants to see ghosts but never does, but King never quite goes there, giving us instead a turgid tale of Devlin pining for his lost love, trying to lose his virginity. King means this to be elegiac, but there’s a Hallmark card mawkishness to King’s writing that defeats his purpose.[Reading Joyland] feels like going to a great chef’s house and all he gives you is a bag of chips.Is it an enjoyable reading experience? Maybe, but it feels like a trifle, like going to a great chef’s house and all he gives you is a bag of chips. What is most grating is that Joyland feels “assembled” from other parts of the King canon. For instance, the young narrator who grows up to be a writer and tells this tale of his youth? Check. A description of a face blown apart by a gun blast, done E.C. Comics style? Check. Sick child with a smart mouth and a heart of gold? Check-a-roonie. Some sort of foul weather to make the climax even more dramatic? Check. So on and so on, with plenty of hokey dialog that sounds like it was lifted from a Lifetime network original.
There are a few moments where King gets it right, like Devlin’s solo trek through the haunted funhouse, which almost lifts the story out of the doldrums. I also admire King because he remains a good sport, publishing this one through Hard Case Crime, a small group that has taken on the noble effort of reprinting crime novels from the 1950s and ‘60s. This is King’s second time lending the weight of his name to the Hard Case catalog. Still, I wonder if Hard Case founder Charles Ardai will ever tell King that it’s nice to get his cast offs, but the group would prefer something juicier.
Joyland is out now and available here.