“Joyland” by Stephen King, book review (C+)


Here is what I imagine could have happened as Stephen King was planning to write Joyland:

Okay.  I like amusement parks.  I should think of a certain ride that is likely to terrify lots of people.  I know – the ferris wheel.  I’m seeing a struggle on that ride, and it stalls.  Two people are fighting in one of the cars.  One person has a gun and wants to kill the other, the other, a college kid, is just trying to defend himself.  Oh, I know, I’ll add a storm.  Make it a hurricane that  hits the boardwalk as they are fighting.  There would be wind and rain, the car is rocking as they struggle.  Everything is metal, so lighting would strike closer and closer.  Before I write that part, I don’t really know if lighting hits during a hurricane, so I should look that up.  Naaaah.  Where was I?  Oh yeah, they struggle while in the car of a stalled ride during a great storm, but I need a way to resolve that?  Damn.  I’m really busy right now, so I need something convenient.  I know!  Long before getting into this climactic fight, the college kid could meet someone with a rare, unusual talent.  That talent will be useless except to save the kid during the fight.  I’m sure readers won’t mind.

Here’s another possibility:

Okay.  I like amusement parks, especially the cheesy haunted houses.  How about a haunted house that’s actually haunted?  There are rumors that people occasionally see a woman’s ghost during a dark area of the ride.  She was murdered during the ride by her date.  A group of college kids working at the amusement park, new kids, learn about the ghost during orientation.  During that summer, one of them sees the ghost, but the main character doesn’t and becomes obsessed with finding out who killed the woman, sliced her throat during the ride and dumped her body inside.  Instead of going back for the Fall semester, the guy stays on through the winter in order to investigate further.  One day, as the college boy walks along the beach, he meets a hot, older woman and starts a relationship with her.  Every boy’s dream, so I’ll probably become so obsessed with this “May-December” thing that I’ll pretty much forget all about the ghost.  I’m sure readers won’t mind.

I have not even come close to reading 50% of King’s entire library has written, but I seriously am trying to keep up.  Problem is that with most of his novels, I’m always left disappointed.  So why do I keep reading him?  His writing “voice” is the best I have ever read.  Back in the 1800’s, American literature was horrible.  Paragraphs were 200 words and one sentence.  Mark Twain began the evolution, continued by Hemingway, maybe someone else, and now continued by King.  He is a writing lesson all by himself, but writing in terms of prose, not endings.  His endings are normally matters of convenience, and nothing has changed in Joyland.

Devin Jones, on summer break from the University of New Hampshire, takes a job at Joyland, a North Carolina oceanfront amusement park.  Like most boardwalk amusements, this one has a fortune teller with a bad, fake accent, but this one, Madame Fortuna, claims to have “the sight” and tells Devin she has premonition for him:  he will meet two children – one he will save but one he won’t.  Her accent often wavers from mystic to Brooklyn-ite, but that shouldn’t be seen negatively.  Okay, maybe it should, but Joyland – the place where they “sell fun,” – can’t be too picky about who works there.

Devin also meets a few other characters who are more genuine but less prophetic, such as Erin and Tom, also college students doing summer work.  Tom, like Devin, works various rides throughout the park.  He is more serious than Devin but less personable.  Erin is a “Hollywood Girl,” a troupe of attractive young women who dress like photo girls (see the book cover) in clubs during the 50’s and 60’s and take pictures of guests in order to generate a little park revenue and lots of park memories.  She’s got curiosity, and that’s good.  There are also a few full-time “carnies,” people who work the carnival circuit for a living.  They’re rather stereotypical, and I know this because I’ve been a summer carny, seven summers to be specific, so I know exactly what this is all about.  My specialty was the bushel baskets, where you toss the softball and hope it stays in the basket.  I’ll be glad to spill that secret but not right now.  That’s enough about me.

Devin, like most main characters, needs a reason for pain.  He had a girlfriend who broke up with him during the first few pages, so we know from the start his reason to be unhappy.  During the course of his first working summer, he has good, genuine fun at Joyland.  The mascot is a hound, Howie the Hound, and feels something similar to Scooby-Doo.  Devin, like everyone else, must occasionally “wear the fur,” which means dance around in the costume and entertain the little kids.  He performs so well that he becomes a favorite of the owner.  This is necessary so he could occasionally ask for a favor and automatically get it.

On a day off, Devin, Erin, and Tom take a ride through The Funhouse, a kind of haunted house, what they call a “dark ride,” in which it’s dark but not very scary to college kids.  They aren’t there to be scared.  They’re there to see a ghost that has intermittently appeared over several years.  You would expect the fortune teller should have a say in this, but she refuses to go near the ride.  After they leave exit, Tom claims to have seen the ghost, and he is greatly affected.  Devin is disappointed he did not see her, and Erin wants to investigate.  Eventually, they learn of a possible serial killer, but as the summer comes to an end, Tom and Erin head back to school.  Erin likes Tom enough to transfer to his school, which is not bright in the real world but not important in Joyland.

Devin lives in a boarding house for the summer, but he stays when September approaches, taking a semester off from school for three reasons.  First, he seems to have not recovered from the girl who broke up with him, which is not very believable.  Second, he met a single mother with an interesting child and wants to get to know both of them better.  Third, he wants to find out more about the ghost in The Funhouse.

In the park office are pictures taken by the Hollywood Girls and showing the murdered girl and her date in dark glasses, a hat pulled low.  While Devin gets to know the park employees during the off season, Erin investigates through the college library.  Eventually, she takes a trip back down to North Carolina to present some startling evidence to Devin, but their meeting does not go unnoticed.

The second reason he stayed was because of Annie and Mike, a single mom and her wheelchair-bound son with multiple sclerosis.  Remember the girlfriend who dumped him in the beginning?  That dumping was necessary so that Devin would find Annie so interesting, and that’s because Annie and Mike each have a special talent.  One is real, one is supernatural, and neither is really necessary except that – well – if you happen to read the book, you’ll realize that Joyland, like most other King stories, has a poor ending.

To reiterate, Annie and Mike are completely useless to the story, just convenient characters tossed in along the way so they could have special talents that are exactly what will be needed at the end of the story when Devin is confronted, and threatened, and beaten by the serial killer who murdered the girl who became the ghost in The Funhouse.

As I read the ending, I literally shook my head in disbelief and looked forward to see how other reviews might have attacked the climax.  You can’t imagine how disappointed I am that I still can’t find one review that mentions it.  Instead, all I see are “fabulous!” and “riveting!” and “another King classic!”  Those reviewers either read a different book or maybe they just can’t read at all.  Or maybe the emperor has new clothes.  I haven’t seen such a convenient ending since Lisey’s Story, another King book with an amazing coincidence existing only to wrap things up neatly.

I was hoping to write this without any spoilers, but I think I danced a little too close to that fire.  If I ruined anything for you, don’t worry, you’re better off.  Go find something else to read because there is not much joy in Joyland, except the cover.  I love the nostalgic look of the pulp fiction artwork.


6 thoughts on ““Joyland” by Stephen King, book review (C+)

  1. With few exceptions (one really) I have always found most King’s books to convenient. If I must I will read them on airplanes.

    Nicely done review, for me consistent with my thoughts on his writing.

    • my theory is his endings are too convenient because he often writes himself into a corner. this is the result of his pre-writing style, which he doesn’t have. he doesn’t use outlines or much of anything except to sit down and start writing when something inspires him.

      in the case of “joyland,” he was walking on a beach and saw a boy in a wheelchair, flying a kite on which was a picture of jesus. that appears in the story. by king’s explanation in his memoir, “on writing,” he just starts writing and waits to see where the story takes him. that’s how you end up in a corner from which you need something convenient to get you out.

      • there ya go. it’s why “joyland” began interestingly enough with the ghost in the funhouse, but then she disappeared and we watched the college boy lose his virginity to the sexy single mom who was also a preacher’s daughter.

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