Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Joyland by Stephen King

"Joyland" is Stephen King's second contribution to the Hard Case Crime series of noir paperbacks, and it's more of a true noir than his previous contribution, "The Colorado Kid." I've written about Stephen King's work before, here and here.

Like many others of my generation, it's hard to remember a time when there wasn't a new Stephen King book on the horizon, or a movie based on one of his many novels or short stories. I've probably read more of his books than any other author, and one has to admire the sheer output and work ethic of the man. "Joyland" is an enjoyable tale, showing the author, I believe, having a good time in one of his more favorite settings - the recent past.

In this regard, "Joyland" belongs with some of the best of Stephen King's work, such as "The Body," (which became the basis for the movie "Stand By Me") or "It," or the recent "11/22/63." For King, the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s usually mean a simpler, more Norman Rockwell-esque time, where the usual meanness and evil that dwells in his work hides just beneath the surface of each person's familiar greeting on the town square. (It's interesting that this book takes place just prior to the moment when King's career took off with the publication of "Carrie.") He does this in spite of certain details that feel anachronistic - even though we're in the summer of 1973, I'm not sure how prevalent microwave ovens were, or fruit smoothies, and I think the advertising slogan "Is it live or is it Memorex?" was still a few years away.

Devin Jones is our narrator, a boy in college who is struggling to get over the aftermath of his first real relationship. Even before his time with Wendy Keegan is over, he secures for himself a summer job at a small-time, old-time amusement park on the North Carolina coast called Joyland. This isn't Disney World, or even a Six Flags park - this is a throwback to the old traveling carnival and its world of intrigue and twilight drifters who man the rides and serve the popcorn. This removes the patina of the modern corporate world of amusement and instead invests it with a homespun magic all its own. And it isn't long before Devin discovers that four years before, a woman named Linda Gray met her end in the Funhouse at the hands of a man who hasn't yet been caught.

As the story of Linda Gray reminds us, there is more going on here than an amusing ride. Joyland is situated near Heaven Beach, and is presided over by a largely absent and impossibly old owner, Bradley Easterbrook, a man whom one character refers to as "The Jesus of Fun." He schools his young charges in learning "the talk" - the carny code that distinguishes those who run the park from those who merely pass through, a language that "can't be explained, but only learned."

You don't have to have read many Stephen King novels to recognize Easterbrook as a stand-in for the Almighty, and Joyland for a more exalted location. And then there's Mr. Easterbrook's address to the new employees:

"This is a badly broken world, full of wars and cruelty and senseless tragedy. Every human being who inhabits it is served his or her portion of unhappiness and wakeful nights. Those of you who don't already know that will come to know it. Given such sad and undeniable facts of the human condition, you have been given a priceless gift this summer: you are here to sell fun. In exchange for the hard-earned dollars of your customers, you will parcel out happiness. Children will go home and dream of what they saw here and what they did here..."

The longing for a perfect world of happiness is deep, and needs satisfying. Devin finds himself leading a charmed life, as events begin to make him forget the nagging ache that remains for his lost love. "God put you in the right place at the right time," one character tells him, while the park's fortune teller, who seems to have some kind of gift, announces that "there's a shadow" over him.

A few more familiar characters from the King pantheon show up - the wise but doomed child with the gift of second sight, and a character living in the shadow of a fanatical religious parent. When Devin meets Mike, a boy trying to fly a kite at the beach, Devin notices that the kite is adorned with the image of Christ. But the kite won't fly, won't hang in the air, until Devin takes it, and the kite "won't feel like it's alive" unless it's in the sky. "As long as it's up there, where it was made to be, it really is" alive. Whether King is make a statement about a kite, or the nature of faith and the Incarnation, is left to the reader. If it's the later, he seems to be saying that Jesus only makes sense when you're looking up at Him, that He won't fly unless you allow Him to, in your own life.

But this isn't a religious allegory, but functionally a murder mystery, and the killer of Linda Gray is unmasked in ways that may be supernatural. The killer also turned out to be much closer than Devin could have expected, a nice noir touch that King handles with style. And because this is a Stephen King story, he reminds us that what we believe about the nature of life and death has no real bearing on its actual reality. When one character sees what he thinks is the ghost of Linda Gray in the Funhouse, he knows that something exists beyond this life. But he doesn't "know if it's good or bad."

"Joyland" offers a nice quick jaunt back to the past, much like a trip to the amusement park, where entertainment is served up in brash, bold colors, with exuberant music and enough of a thrill to send your quickened pulse home satisfied. But the past is always more complicated than we want to remember or care to admit, as King reminds us through one character - "When it comes to the past, everybody writes fiction."

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  1. I'm a huge King fan, so I'm predisposed to like whatever he publishes. Even so, I thought "Joyland" was a really strong novel.

    I had not put two and two together on the symbolism of the kite scene; now that it's been added up for me, it makes that scene even better than I already thought it was!

  2. Joyland is a intriguing mystery and a coming-of-age story all rolled into one. I highly recommend it to both King fans and mystery fans alike. Michael Kelly's narration was fantastic, as he tells of the highs and lows of the summer.

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