Back cover: “College student Devin Jones took the summer job at Joyland hoping to forget the girl who broke his heart. But he wound up facing something far more terrible: the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and dark truths about life—and what comes after—that would change his world forever.”
I have a few problems with Joyland. Firstly, it isn’t a Hard Case Crime novel. Okay, technically it is – the 112th title in the series, in fact – but I suspect the rules have been bent for Stephen King, albeit understandably; he is a massive draw and will likely sell more copies than any other HCC author. However, it is hard not to feel a little disappointed when Joyland is misrepresented as a hard-boiled crime novel or for that matter a crime novel at all. Granted, there is a crime in this 283-page novel but it is far from being the central focus. As for the horror or ghost story element, it’s seems like an afterthought, and the novel would have been no more or less enjoyable without it. Or the psychic abilities of a certain minor character.
Joyland is, at heart, a coming-of-age story. And it has a heart, bigger than anything I’ve ever read from King. It is also a literary novel, strong on character and observation and language (the carny-talk in particular) but slightly lacking on plot and, particularly, satisfying plot development. For example, King eschews traditional clue-gathering (perhaps to save space) and opts instead for having a minor character turn up with a briefcase full of all the information necessary for the protagonist to solve the crime(s). It feels lazy and reinforces the feeling that the author was more interested in the characters than the crime aspect. Clues could and should have been provided piecemeal, but there’s a tangible urgency in the text to return us to the relationships. Not necessarily a bad thing, but remember this is supposed to be a crime novel.
Stephen King is no stranger to characters with psychic abilities. But in Joyland the powers of one character are used to resolve the plot and little else. Again, it feels lazy. Half-assed. But where Joyland does work and works best is in the characterisation: the people and the park (a character in its own right). Devin Jones is one of King’s most likeable and memorable (certainly in recent years), and the supporting cast are likewise well-drawn. The “Joyland” amusement park itself is an endlessly fascinating place, too. Indeed, the first half of the novel is all about the people and the location with little to no plot. Nevertheless, King manages to draw the reader in, deep, with skilful and often beautiful prose, acute observations, and plenty of heart. Everything feels slightly rushed in the second half, as if he suddenly remembered, Hey, this is supposed to be a crime novel, time to get on that. And it suffers a little as a result, but such weaknesses in the story aside, Devin, Mike, Annie, Tom, and Erin are five characters I thoroughly enjoyed spending my time with, if not for a whole summer then at least for a couple of days… 7/10.