When I first heard about Joyland a little over a year ago, with scant plot detail offering serial killers and fairgrounds, I felt we were in for something along the lines of It. When I read, a few weeks ago, that The Shining was apparently set in a fairground in one of its earliest drafts, I looked quizzically at the sky and thought, That’s interesting – given that Dr Sleep, the sequel to The Shining was set for publication a couple of months after Joyland originally.
Devin Jones is a college student, on the rough end of a bad heartbreak, his girlfriend Wendy having started down the long road to a brush-off. He takes a job at Joyland, which is a sort of threadbare Disney land populated with a penchant for carney talk (King has been reading up on his carney talk and it litters the text like amusing glittery stones) and impresses everyone with his easy good nature and his ability to do a good job without carping. The first half of the novel, which is short by normal King standards, is scene setting: just like the first half of The Body and the first half of Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (both of which Joyland has a great deal in common with).
As with those two other novellas, Joyland is told through a prism of wisdom, an older man looking back on his life at the boy he was, the man he became. Every ride, every stand, every small detail is held up to catch the sun, the tang of the sea air and the shift of the sand beneath Devin’s feet as important as what happened on which day and to whom. There are stories, rumour and gossip mostly, circulated over games of Scrabble and passed from ear to ear over beachside beers: a girl, once upon a time, murdered by a man with a tattooed hand; a ghost, given to standing, imploring passengers of the ghost train with her hands outstretched. Each day Devin walks to work along the beach and it is on one such walk that he first spies a small kid and his mum. He earns their trust helping them to fly a kite and in return is offered a glimpse of the boy’s powers, an assured psychic ability offset by ruined lungs and numbered days.
Of course there is a killer and a ghost and Devin and the psychic boy and his mother intersect at the climax – which might feel rushed to some but feels like a solid nod of the head to the pulpy genre reads King is paying homage to here – but you don’t read this King book for the horror. This is a King novel for those of you who loved him back in the day, who don’t need jerks and shocks and sock puppet monsters. Most of all, this is a King novel for those readers who turn to the back of the book to read his latest epistle to the Constant reader first (Joyland doesn’t feature a Constant reader, we get an author’s note and a ‘Thanks, Man’ to the editor of the novel Charles Adai).
Any Cop?: Not the usual King fare (if there is such a thing). An evenly paced, nostalgic hymn to a young man as yet unspoiled by the disappointments of life (like a lot of King heroes, yes he wants to be a writer, but no it doesn’t quite work out for him). Is it the book the cover promises? No. Is that a bad thing? Also no.