Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Joyland (Book Review)

Joyland by Stephen King (Hard Case Crime, 2013)

A reputedly-haunted amusement park spookhouse ride that was the sight of a grisly, unsolved murder years earlier?  One ticket, please.

In Joyland, Stephen King immerses the reader in the world of carnival life (circa 1973): the vibrant sights, the sounds of delight, the distinctive smells of fried dough and cotton candy, the trade lingo wielded by colorful (yet complex) characters. With its intimations of the supernatural and extended behind-the-scenes peak at carny-type existence, the novel recalls Carnivale (is it coincidental that the main character here, as on the HBO series, is dubbed "Jonesy"?).  And Ray Bradbury naturally casts an atmospheric shadow.  King acknowledges his literary precursor in clever, allusive ways, such as by casting a sinister "Tattoo Man" as the villain of the book.  As a bittersweet coming-of-age tale, Joyland no doubt travels the same circuit as Something Wicked This Way Comes.

The novel isn't a perfect fit for the Hard Case Crime mold (yet is nowhere near as incongruous as King's previous effort with the publisher, The Colorado Kid).  Devin Jones, the book's amateur detective narrator, has no trouble waxing sarcastic, but his most memorable lines tend toward the insightful rather than the inciting (e.g. "When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.").  Given its nostalgic tone and retrospective viewpoint, Joyland is more reminiscent of King works such as "The Body" and Hearts in Atlantis than a hard-boiled (and darkly carnivalesque) Bachman book like Thinner.  The murder mystery element here is relegated to the background for the first two-thirds of the novel, as King focuses on building his characters and establishing his setting.  But all the pieces of what proves to be a carefully developed plot fall into place in a frenetic and frightening climax (that takes place on one of Joyland's iconic structures in the midst of an October squall).  The subsequent tear-jerker of a denouement serves as a final, poignant reminder that this narrative ride has been designed to move in surprising ways.

In the end, Joyland stands not just for the eponymous amusement park but also for the place to which King transports readers via his incredible storytelling ability.  This book, I assert without any
hesitation, is the best one the author has gifted his audience with in years.  With its seaside mise-en-scene, Joyland forms a quint-essential summertime read, and it's easy to imagine fans eagerly returning to it come autumn.

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