Joyland by Stephen King (Hard Case Crime, June 4th, 2013)-21 year old college student Devin Jones is spending the summer of 1973 in Heaven’s Bay, North Carolina, a seaside town whose claim to fame, at least in the summertime, is the amusement park called Joyland. Devin just happened to see the want ad for Joyland while still at school at the University of New Hampshire, and with his girlfriend Wendy, who’s gotten her own summer job far away, he figures it’s as good a place as any to spend the summer. Little does he know just how much that summer will change his life.
Joyland is no Disney, or even Six Flags, but it’s a decent sized park, run by seemingly decent people, and Devin can’t help but be excited about starting on what promises to be a bit of an adventure. He immediately meets Lane Hardy, who runs the massive Carolina Spin, and who takes Devin under his wing. Then there’s the forthright Madame Fortuna, who is the resident fortune teller, but who also may be a true seer. Soon, Devin has his hands full with the hustle and bustle of the park, and it does much to keep his mind off the increasingly elusive Wendy, who seems to be doing her best to avoid him, never mind the geographic distance. When she finally sends him a Dear Devin letter, he’s devastated. Luckily, he’s got Joyland.
While nursing his heartbreak, he throws himself into work, and it’s an effective way to keep his mind off of Wendy, most of the time. He even rather enjoys “wearing the fur”, which consists of donning a suit of the park’s mascot, Howie the Happy Hound and entertaining the hoardes of kids that stream through the park. He’s got a knack for it, and he comes to love the work; not only as Howie, but also running the concessions, working the rides and even doing rougher jobs like custodial and maintenance. It’s all part of the job, and combined with his new friends, the lovely Erin (a Hollywood Girl-I believe that’s her on the cover), and Tom, both residents of the quaint and charming Mrs. Shoplaw’s Beachside Accommodations, it’s shaping up to be a decent summer, except for that heartbreak thing. Not to worry, though, before you can blink, Devin will have much more than just work on his plate. He soon becomes caught up in a murder that occurred four years prior, in the darkest part of the Horror House ride. A young girl’s throat was cut and she was left for dead beside the tracks. The killer was careful, and got away, his identity a mystery,but was she the only one? It’s definitely a question for Devin to ponder, besides, of course, the identity of the killer. Devin tells himself it’s just idle curiosity, and nothing will possibly come of it, right?
First of all, before I go any further, I’m firmly in the “Stephen King is a genius” camp of readers. I have no shame and just wanted to get that out there. That said, I do have my favorites, and a few of his past titles have even fallen a little flat for me. I have no problem admitting if one of his books is a miss. However, Joyland is NOT a miss. In fact, it’s probably one of the best of his I’ve read, ever. Joyland, coming in at just under 300 pages, is a poignant, beautifully told coming of age story, with a damn creepy murder mystery in the mix. Joyland is told by Devin 40 years after the events of the novel, and occasionally he inserts his view of certain situations with the eyes of an older, wiser man, and this serves to make the narrative even richer. And rich it is! I don’t know anyone that’s not even a little bit interested in carny life, and I’m fascinated with it. I loved reading about Devin’s day to day at Joyland, and how he comes to care for the people and the park that he’s spending so much time with. The running of the park is like a carefully choreographed Broadway show, each person an important part of an intricate dance and for the most part, the people that work at Joyland are like family, and treat one another as such. Joyland sells fun, after all, and it turns out that fun is a pretty serious business, and certainly not for the faint of heart!
For the most part, Joyland is about the summer on the North Carolina coast that young Devin Jones experiences his first real heartbreak and joins a very different family, including a young boy with a terminal illness and his mother. But, there’s a shadow looming over Joyland, and it’s the brutal murder of a young girl that happened not so long ago. All of these things combine into a perfect storm (literally and figuratively) to culminate in a climax that will knock your socks off. It’s the little things in Joyland that makes it wonderful and the humanity of King’s characters that elevate it far above the usual crime fare. You’ll want to settle in and read this one all the way through. Yes, it’s that good, and my only complaint is that I wanted more. Joyland is a standout of the genre, and an absolute stunner of a novel that will break your heart and send chills down your spine in equal measure!