Joyland is another mashup by super-author Stephen King; it’s part murder mystery, part ghost tale, part coming of age story. There is more than the usual share of King-isms, the gorgeous girl, the cute but tragic child, and a heaped spoonful of Summer of 42, but King’s ability to bring to life a region that he loves, plus the basic decency of the main character, Devin Jones, carried this one for me. I enjoyed it tremendously.
The story is set in the early 1970s. Devin is a college student, in love with a girl who does not love him back, and is about to betray him. He accepts a job at an independent amusement park called Joyland. Devin is tall, lanky and naïve, and all of those traits have an impact on his success at the park. King does a splendid job of creating the people who live in the neighboring town, like Devin’s landlady. I spent a few weeks in a seaside resort town in Oregon once, and I would swear that same woman was my landlady. There is a “carny” aspect to the park, and some of the regulars are carnies, but every summer they hire a bunch of college kids.
There’s the ghost/mystery; a girl who was found dead years earlier in the park’s only “dark ride,” who some people think they see, reaching out for help, on the last leg of the ride. Devin and his friends Tom and Erin grow curious, but after Tom rides the dark ride, he gets quiet and edgy and doesn’t want to discuss the mystery. It turns out he has seen the ghost and it has freaked him out. Erin, Tom’s girlfriend, has a different attitude, and when Tom and Erin go back to school in the fall (Devin stays to work for a year) she starts to investigate and discovers that there may be more murders than just the ghost girl in the dark ride.
Then there is Mike and his over-protective mother. Mike is dying of a rare disease; he is a strange boy and he and Devin develop a friendship. Then there is the park. Devin has a talent for “wearing the fur,” the name for dressing up in a head-to-toe animal costume. Devin becomes a local sensation when he saves the life of a child choking on a hotdog, and garners the park some good publicity. Where the writing shines, though, is when Devin is in costume and the children respond to his enthusiasm. The homespun wisdom of amusement park life – already being challenged in the southeast by Disney – and carny wisdom is touching.
Needless to say, all the plot elements converge at the end. Mike is more than a sick little boy; he’s a gifted one, and there is, perhaps, more than one ghost. The mystery is solved and Devin comes to several realizations about life. Devin gets some nice fantasy-wish-fulfillment sex, but it’s balanced by the brutal accuracy of the break-up (or drift-away) by his deceitful college girlfriend. The story ends on a bittersweet note.
Less a murder mystery or a scary story than kind of a love letter to a place and time, written by one of the best American storytellers, this was a superb read.