I’m not much of a horror reader, so I have little experience reading Stephen King, but since his latest novel ventures into mystery territory, I thought I’d give it a try.
Perhaps my impression is colored a bit by his reputation, but Joyland definitely reads to me like the work of an experienced, competent, slightly bored novelist. There’s a pat mystery with a thrilling (if off-the-shelf) conclusion, but it’s wrapped in quite a bit of meandering, and a substantial B-story that has next to nothing to do with the main plot. It’s not a bad way to spend a couple of afternoons, but if you’re hoping for more than a forgettable throwaway book, look elsewhere.
The main character, our narrator, is pretty boring, though everyone tells him he’s special. The worst part of the book is him walking around, thinking his boring thoughts, using up words to get us near 300 pages. His name is Devin Jones (I just had to look that up, is how boring he is), and he’s a college student having a quarter-life crisis because his one and only girlfriend obviously doesn’t want to be his girlfriend anymore, though she’s not quite dumping him.
He takes a summer off from school and works at a South Carolina amusement park called Joyland. Devin meets a couple of lifelong friends, finds that he’s good at dressing up in a big dog costume, and generally has a mediocre summer in terms of general interest. Every detail of this summer, especially the workings of Joyland, is described for us, dragging out the first hundred pages of this book. The best parts are the bits of carny lingo King calls “the Talk,” though they don’t float the rest of the dead weight.
Luckily, after this extended setup, the story picks up in two directions. Devin and his friends Erin and Tom (luckily almost every other character besides Devin is more memorable than he is) hear a story about a murder that happened in Joyland’s Horror House four years earlier. They try the Horror House on a day off, and Tom sees the ghost of the girl, which scares him for the rest of his life.
Then they try to solve the mystery of the girl’s murder. I have some quibbles with King’s handling of this mystery—too much supernatural, and the solution is a bit too pat—but overall, if you’re looking for a very light mystery, this fits the bill. King certainly knows how to draw out tension and how to feed out plot points bit by bit.
There’s also that tangential B story, about a young boy with muscular dystrophy and his (hot) mother, whom Devin helps. This subplot is wish fulfillment in the vein of The Shawshank Redemption, both satisfying and saccharine in the way that Andy Dufresne’s adventures are.
The thread tying these storylines together is supposedly that some people die before their time, and that’s not fair. It’s quite a lazy throughline for a mystery novel with a murder at its center, but again, look elsewhere for world-bending depth.
So, even though this is my first first-hand experience with King, I think this book fits his reputation. It’s not the work of a great writer, but it’s satisfying in a simple way that I expect from a good pulp writer. I won’t remember it next week, but it made for a pretty fun afternoon read.