Really, I don't read mysteries or thrillers too frequently. It just so happens that something about Joyland intrigued me--the fact that it was supposed to be about an amusement park killer, the plan for it to intentionally be like a pulpy mystery novel (as part of a line called Hard Case Crimes), the paperback-only release of the book. I wanted to read it.
Now, I'm not a Stephen King person; that is, I've only read The Gunslinger and the beginning of The Eyes of the Dragon. I've never even seen the movie adaptations of Carrie or The Shawshank Redemption, which is silly, I know. But I think Stephen King is a really cool guy--I love reading his interviews and I do plan to read the complete Dark Tower series and The Stand and The Shining (which of course means I won't get to it for at least another 5 years). My point is that I had few expectations for what this book would be like because I don't read Stephen King.
Joyland is about Devin Jones, a 21-year-old college student who gets a summer job working at an amusement park (the titular Joyland). He is coming to the realization that his first love, Wendy Keegan, wants nothing to do with him and has moved on; trying to live with his powerful heartbreak, he involves himself in the mystery of a girl murdered on one of the rides in the amusement park.
King's newest book is difficult to approach, because the question isn't "was it good?" (yes) but "how do I approach it?" The author is so precisely able to capture what it feels like to be a betrayed, lovesick 21-year-old; that is, Devin is such a perfect creation. Having him narrate from the present on his past memories is a delight to read, because it allows the entire narrative to have a very retro feel. The entire novel is overflowing with carny-speak (some of it researched and some of it made up) and the behind-the-scenes perspective on things like carnivals and Disney-esque places never ceases to thrill and fascinate me. There's no doubt that King is an incredible writer (though I don't think at this point in the game, it's even a question, merely fact).
However, the mystery is a bit problematic. Not because it's predictable (I was surprised by the identity of the killer, at least), but because it doesn't feature as heavily as it ought to. What gets the main focus in Joyland is Devin's growth as a person, including his relationships with friends he makes at the park and a young boy near death with muscular dystrophy. These characters are equally as interesting as Devin and the relationships between them are poignant and satisfying (satisfying in that I cared about and was pleased by the outcomes).
But Devin's concerns about who killed Linda Gray take a back seat most of the time, only becoming central to the narrative a handful of times (most prominently about halfway through and again at the end). Certainly the moments in which Devin confronts the killer are thrilling, but it feels like King hastily revised his text to add in the mystery toward the end of the writing process. There's a bit of a deus ex machina involved at the end that deals with ghosts, but King manages to make even that into a heartfelt sleight of hand, a job he does so well that the deus-ex-iness of it all didn't even bother me.
Joyland is short, but it manages to be heavily drenched in emotional power. Perhaps it doesn't work so well as a thriller/horror/mystery novel, but having read none of King's masterworks in those genres, I can't say I'm disappointed. I headed into the book with certain ideas about what it would be like, but I had to throw those ideas out almost immediately in order to fully embrace what I found. Ultimately, that's why I also tagged this review as "literary"; the way the author has crafted and explored his characters is beautiful, devastating and delightful all at once.
My rating: 4.5/5
Joyland on Goodreads
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