Another entry into Stephen King’s Hard Case Crime writing (the first was 2005’s Colorado Kid) Joyland was released in June of this year. Unlike other King novels Joyland leans a bit more heavily on the mystery aspects of the story rather than the horror though King does manage to toss in a touch of the supernatural. That being said this isn’t a horror novel, nor is it quite a mystery novel nor is is quite a thriller novel; instead the novel feels a bit more like a bildungsroman than anything else. Joyland is, above all things, a coming of age story. Perhaps, it might be better say that Joyland is a snapshot of a young man’s final days of youth. Joyland is Stephen King at his best. Sure it isn’t a novel full of the fear and dread of ‘Salems Lot or the wonder and the weird of The Gunslinger but it demonstrates King’s ability to capture the mood and energy of a place and a person.
Joyland begins as Devin Jones, an upstanding young man from New England flees his breakup with his college girlfriend by taking a job at a South Carolina amusement park; the titular Joyland. Heartbroken, Devin finds comfort in his work and his friends as he attempts to pick up the pieces of his broken heart and move on with his life. Joyland, is a novel told from the present looking towards the past. The narrator, seemingly an older version of Devin, is the one who relates the story to us. Indeed, the knowledge that Devin himself narrates the novel colors the the prose quite a bit and the novel oscillates between the bright technicolor of Joyland to the rain soaked gray of Devin’s broken heart. King intimately captures how those formative years of heartbreak color ones life going forward and how that same heartbreak spreads like an oil stain across the surface of our memories. It’s something I think almost everyone goes through at one time or another and King’s ability to capture not only those feelings, but the sensation of looking back at a similar time in one’s own life is quite uncanny.
There are many elements of Joyland that reminded me of similar King fiction. I was particularly struck by there is the wheel-chair bound Mike who bore similarities to Danny Torrance (The Shining), Jack Sawyer (The Talisman), and Marty Coslow (Cylce of the Werewolf) and the South Carolina seaside setting, particularly during the late summer/autumn months, which reminded me of the early chapters of The Talisman and empty-feeling Arcadia Beach. Of course these are things only a long time King reader would notice and they don’t detract from the overall quality of Joyland’s story. I do feel like they’re worth noting since all tend to channel some of King’s best, distilling down his characterization of both people and place into its most potent and believable.
Joyland is a moving and emotional novel that encapsulates quite vividly the state of mind embodied by youth just on the cusp of adulthood. While the element of the supernatural King employs in the novel does much to push the plot forward it also isn’t necessarily important to Devin’s emotional journey. It works as a familiar touchstone for King fans and its ties to Devin’s own journey, it involves the ghost of a young woman whose own youthful years were robbed from her, work as a fascinating parallel to Devin’s own emotional “unfinished business.” Joyland is a novel that only the Stephen King of the present day could have written and it stands as one of his strongest and most accessible works of fiction to date.