Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Joyland is part coming of age tale, part crime novel

Joyland, a novel by Stephen King, published by Titan Books, A Division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd. (2013)

Stephen King has always been a fan of pulp crime novels, and in his latest novel, Joyland, he pays homage to that venerable genre in an earnest and respectful way. King's decision to only publish a paperback edition, along with the kitschy design on the cover, are throwbacks to the pulp novels from the 1930s, '40s and '50s.

Joyland is a story narrated by Devin Jones, who reflects back on a summer he spent working at an amusement park in North Carolina in 1973. The younger Devin is at first captivated by the people, the ambience and the spirit that pervades the park, a world that operates far outside the sphere of ordinary American life.

While working at Joyland, Devin is drawn to a brutal murder that occurred there four years earlier, a murder that has remained a mystery ever since. Devin is compelled to try and solve the case using a combination of hard evidence and supernatural clues. He enlists the help of a former colleague at the park to help with the research, and when the pair start to uncover some uncomfortable truths, tensions start to build.

Devin is no gumshoe, yet his willingness to poke around and ask questions, combined with his likeable personality and curiosity, make for a heartwarming tale, which works as both a coming of age story and a whodunnit. In addition to investigating a murder, Devin realizes with the benefit of hindsight that working at Joyland represented a turning point in his life, a period of spiritual and emotional awakening. I particularly liked the friendship he forms with a young boy named Mike Ross who has muscular dystrophy. Such a relationship would seem unlikely in a crime novel, but in King's hands, it works.

This not a gripping page turner by any means; the plot hops along leisurely and conversations drag on for longer than they sometimes need to. King's writing style is familiar and folksy. He does a convincing job conveying the language and mannerisms of the "carnys," he builds suspense slowly and methodically, and he's is always in control of his subject.

Joyland is light, breezy reading, perfect for a summer holiday. If you're looking for vintage Stephen King horror, this isn't it. Rather, Joyland is a delightful story with elements of the old-style pulp fiction and a hint of the supernatural, but generously infused with King's characteristic style and wit, a story that delivers quite a punch at the end.

It's great to see King venture into pulp fiction territory, and I hope he has more of this type of fiction up his sleeve.  

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