“When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.”
The melancholia instantly leaps off the page in this tale of youth, broken hearts and a rickety amusement park in North Carolina called Joyland. King’s knack for transporting you to a place and time, and a mood, is on full display. Written in the first person perspective, it recounts a summer and fall in 1973 during which Devin Jones, “a 21-year-old virgin with literary aspirations”, works as a carny while trying to get over a girl.
”Even when what you’re holding onto is full of thorns, it’s hard to let go. Maybe especially then.”
The writing is sympathetic and atmospheric, clear and uncomplicated; ‘this is what happened and how I felt about it’. The start, where Devin visits the park for a job interview, is like an inverted version of The Shining. Nice people, spring around corner.
Spring turns to summer, work begins, and to a large degree this is a story about a good summer. One of those summers that shine in retrospect. New friends, a fascinating place. Even ‘wearing the fur’, dressing up as the park’s canine mascot to amuse the kids, suits Devin. Ominous comments from the fortune teller and a broken heart notwithstanding, this has all the makings of a great experience.
But there’s also the actually haunted horror house and the horrific tragedy that occurred there. And Devin’s inability to forget the girl and move on. He thinks staying on at the amusement park after summer will help with that. A seaside amusement park in the fall. How very Morrissey.
Devin wants be changed by facing something otherworldly and courts an encounter with the apparition said to be haunting Joyland. In Devin’s befriending a young boy with a serious illness and apparent telepathy, the writer introduces another subject typical to King, but it’s toned down and actually not what you’re likely to remember best about the book. That would probably be the colourful portrait of the amusement park and its characters and the depiction of youth itself.
This is prime King. Wise, empathetic, crude, poetic, lively and eerie. Near the end it delivers themes more in keeping with the Hard Case Crime label (an imprint under which The Colorado Kid was also published), but at this point it’s clear that King was never interested in writing just a murder mystery. Big surprise. It is ‘thrilling’ in surprising ways alongside the expected ones. Will a good deed work out for the best? That kind of way.
The finale, with its echoes of a scene from a famous movie not named here, and the touching epilogue confirms that this book really, really needs to be filmed. Done right, it would be wonderful.
As is the book. I would in fact describe it as the perfect antidote after reading Revival (published in the same year). There are some common themes (looking back from the sad vantage point of old age being among them), and Joyland has its share of violence and chills, but it also offers hope and beauty. Call me crazy, but I prefer that.