Review: Joyland by Stephen King

Seaside towns are nothing but collections of endings. The land runs out into the beach which runs out into the sea and the towns are full of nets designed to catch the people who are washed downstream along with the river water. It sounds worse than it is, but that idea, of this being the place you end up rather than somewhere you want to be lies at the heart of every experience I’ve had with seaside towns. The windswept fishing villages of the Isle of Man are all scattered around the coast and serve as twofold barriers; one to stop the water getting in, one to remind you what you need to go through to get out. I grew up there, spent 18 years on the Rock as we all still call it and have been back three times in close to twenty years. It doesn’t matter though; I still feel the pull, the call. Seaside towns are where you end up and if you grew up there you leave in the sure knowledge that you’ll one day be washed up back there again.

That’s why funfairs tend to land in these towns. If you’re not there for the surf or the scenery, the chances are you’ll need to amuse yourself and every funfair I’ve ever been to has been only too happy to help separate people from their time, worries and money. The Brighton pier is especially great, a funfair stretching far enough out to see the curve of the bay when you turn and look behind you. The best one I’ve been to though is the Santa Cruz boulevard. Shops jostle for space with rides and food shacks and far above you the cable cars and palm trees define the sky whilst the ocean gets to set its own boundaries. Santa Cruz is somewhere you wash up, certainly, but it’s somewhere you wash up out of choice. This is a destination rather than an ending. Joyland, for a while, is the same.

For Devin Jones, the lead, it’s somewhere to go that isn’t home and the growing sense his girlfriend and he are growing apart. Devin is articulate, intelligent, nice and unformed, a child but one trying to be an adult. The irony of him finding maturity and respect in a place like Joyland isn’t lost and King shows Devin, and friends Tom and Erin, sliding into the rhythm of life at the park with relative ease. The hours are long, the pay is crappy but they get the unique privilege of knowing what goes on behind the scenes, being empowered by the theatre of it all, playing at adulthood until they’re ready for it. They run stalls and rides, talk to customers and, in Devin’s case, wear the fur. The Happyland mascot, Howie, is a huge friendly dog and one of the most dreaded jobs in the park is taking a shift wearing the fur as Howie. It’s dangerously hot, you can barely see and you’re covered in children the whole time. Devin hates it, right up until he has his first shift and absolutely loves it. He’s a natural, not a natural entertainer but a natural in the Howie suit. Stripped of his malaise and occasional suicidal thoughts, Devin’s reduced down to nothing more than his own good nature, amplified by a dog suit. His life, complicated by adolescence and all the miniature disasters that go with it becomes nothing more than making children happy. Devin finds joy in Joyland and does the thing a true hero would; gives it to others.

King excels at this sort of cheerfully shabby Americana and his descriptions of Joyland are beautiful. You get a real sense of the park not just as the children see it but as the staff do too; a colossal machine designed to manufacture enjoyment, maintained by a close-knit family. There’s no new narrative ground broken here, the characters range from salt of the Earth old veteran to hip new hire with a fondness for rhyming and hats, but that only helps the shabby feel of the place. Through it, King opens the door to one of the last great tribes of the 20th Century; the Carnies and lets Devin, and you, into their world. It doesn’t matter how much of it is true, all that matters is it feels real, just like the rides. And, just like the rides, the Carnies of Joyland have much more going on underneath the surface than they seem.  From the foul mouthed Eddie Parks to the hat-loving, rhyming Lane Hardy, the characters are all as battered and odd as the rides they maintain. Devin isn’t the only person who goes to Joyland to become someone else and that idea lies at the heart of every character, and every danger, in the book. The murder that the book centers on is a perfect example. A horrific assault on the Joyland ghost ride years previously, that supposedly left the ride haunted, it would have been the driving narrative force behind a lesser book. Here though, just as people actually do, King saunters up to the ghost, refusing to make eye contact. The two experiences Devin has with it are as anti-horror fiction as they could possibly be but they make the point with quiet, unsettling force. Someone died in there and they never quite found their way out. Just like Devin is trying to find his way home, Joyland is trying to survive and Erin and Tom are trying to work out what their future will be. Ghosts of the past, present and future jostle for position in Joyland and time and again Devin is at the center of it all.

Standing by his side are Mike and Annie. This is where the Ferris wheel starts to creak, the rides start to spin a little too fast. Mike is a young boy, he’s dying and he knows it. Annie, his mother, is so consumed with holding her ground and keeping Mike in a bubble of the present that it takes a good chunk of the book before she even acknowledges Devin exists. He walks along the beach past her house to and from work every day, whilst she continually nurses Mike and refuses any form of outside contact. Devin’s heart is already broken, Annie’s is well on the way and it’s only a matter of time before they find their common ground.

When they do, the novel moves in two directions very quickly. The first is to make the supernatural element overt, with the reveal that Mike is a form of psychic. He’s not the first in the book, and again King scores for the pragmatic, grounded approach the Joyland psychic has to her abilities but Mike’s different and disturbingly close to the Magical Dying Child trope. My own childhood experience of terminal illness has given me precisely no tolerance for that sort of lazy, cheap writing and thankfully this is nothing of the sort. Instead, King makes Mike the most self-aware character in the book. He’s charming, conniving, completely at home with his gift and convinced he’s completely at peace with his impending death. Where Devin can’t look the future in the eye and Annie won’t, Mike can’t do anything but look at it, every single day. The freedom that gives him is passed onto King, who resolves the ghost plot early and, with typical showmanship, largely off-screen. It’s Mike, and Tom, who see the ghost despite Dev’s desperate attempts to. King cleverly chooses to never spell out why she doesn’t appear to Dev, but you can’t help the suspicion it’s because Dev is already behind the scenes. He knows how the rides work and this way he gets a little magic, a little uncertainty to take home too.

The second drastic gear shift comes when Dev arranges for Mike to come to the park during off season. This is King at his best, combining the cheerful decrepit Americana of Joyland with Mike’s innocent gaze to create a sequence which should be choked with sugar. Instead it’s the bravest moment in the book, as Mike, Annie and Dev burn a sizable portion of Mike’s healthy childhood spending the day at the park. Joyland shakes the dust off one more time and shows them what it can do, and Dev is both a rube and a Carny, behind the scenes at and entranced at how hard his friends have worked at others. The moment where, dressed as Howie, he greets Mike is beautiful; Mike knows its Dev in the suit, complements him on how good a Howie he is and still gets swept up in the magic of it.  Mike, like Dev, can see behind the curtain and, like Dev, can see the elegance and joy in how things work just as much as the effect they have.  This is one of the reasons why control of the narrative shifts constantly in this sequence as Dev is caught up in the plans of his colleagues, Annie is carried along by Dev and Mike and finally Mike seizes control to help the ghost escape. The park is never more alive than it is in this sequence, and neither are the three main characters. Mike’s earlier reassurance to Annie; ‘Don’t worry, this won’t be the last good time’ echoes up and down this sequence and, like the characters, you don’t want it to end. But it does, and whilst there are more good times, there are none in the book.

The ghost is put to rest early, the killer is not. The book’s final sequence, set at the park in the middle of a storm, is a confrontation that solves the murder and is built entirely around the characters of the people involved. The killer is a liar and a cheat, someone who has presented a false face to their own friends for the entire book. Devin has been honest with everyone and the reward is his life, thanks to Mike’s supernatural abilities and Annie’s uncanny accuracy with a rifle. It’s an incredibly dangerous gambit, effectively hanging a lantern on Devin’s one beat nature but it works. The supernatural bubbles overtly to the surface in a way that’s unexpected and the end result is both satisfyingly neat and plausibly untidy. There are more good times, but there are no more for anyone at Joyland. Devin leaves the stage not just because the applause have stopped but because he doesn’t need to be there anymore. Joyland, presented as selling fun in the first few pages, sells self-knowledge too and Devin’s bought all he needs.

 

It would be easy to say there are two books here that never quite fully gel; one a coming of age set at a funfair and the other an unusually restrained ghost story. The truth is that they never need to fully gel; Devin’s outsider status both emphasizing and framing the supernatural elements in a way which is extremely familiar. This is how people react to the impossible, not with fear or dread but simply slotting it into their everyday lives and moving on. This pragmatism informs Devin, certainly informs Mike and turns Annie into something more than the stock put upon, passive female character King’s been criticized for in the past. She’s crumpled and angry, just like Devin and together with Mike they wash up in town, heal and slowly realize that this is just where they need to be. A sea side town where ghosts and murderers are real, but so are the rides that need cleaning, the rubes to sell fun to and the scars to watch heal. Pragmatism and magic, washed up in a tired old seaside town. Welcome to Joyland, enjoy your stay.

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