Joyland

For a book with such a cheerful title Joyland left me feeling pretty grumpy. Written by Stephen King and published by Hard Case Crime, the story is mostly set in or near a struggling amusement park called Joyland. A young man called Devin Jones, nicknamed both Dev and Jonesy, takes a summer job at the park, hoping the change of scenery combined with hard work will help him take his mind off of his recent breakup. The park is rumored to be haunted by the ghost of the victim of an unsolved murder. Dev's goals for the summer includes wanting to see the ghost, which is a bit worrying as he is also struggling with suicidal thoughts.

The ghost isn't the only thing that attracts his attention. He also meets a family that becomes very important to him, just as he becomes a catalyst of change for them. All of these things intertwine and create a story that I wouldn't exactly call a satisfying mystery. But it is one of the things Mr. King does best; an intriguing story with supernatural elements.

Unfortunately Jonesy irritated me more than I would have liked. I didn't loathe him or want to murder him as I often do with Walter White from Breaking Bad but I but he did make me growl a lot. He begins his story by complaining about how badly his first love hurt him, while stressing how terrible it was that she wouldn't let him have sex with her. (He refers to lovemaking as “it”, as though he is too shy and retiring to use more common, or even scientific language, but then goes on to reduce the act to a word that is not really appropriate for this column, which gives the impression he was being coy instead of discrete.) He says he's “gallant” for not pressuring her into sex, then comments on how being gallant isn't the way to go. Since when is common decency being gallant? Speaking in this rapey kind of way isn't the best way to make a good impression or make me care at all about what is going to happen to this guy.

He spends too much time playing mournful records and thinking about suicide. (Really any time spent thinking about suicide is too much time.) He blames all of this on his ex, never taking any responsibility for his portion of their problems and subsequent breakup. He also loves to use his young age, 21, which is not that young, as an excuse for his follies. These things would not be so annoying if they were mentioned only a few times in the short (for Mr. King anyway) novel, but I started to feel like he was going to be self indulgent every second page through the entire story. I know a lot of people dislike Holden Caulfield but I'd rather spend a month with him than an hour with Jonesy.

He does have redeeming qualities; he's a hard worker, he gets along great with kids and genuinely enjoys entertaining them, he's a quick study and he forges on even when he's frightened. Hopefully he sat down at some point and realized that women, ie half of the human race, are more than just fantasy objects who exist for his pleasure. Once he figures that out he should be able to get it together pretty quickly.

Another character that I had some problems with is Mike, a boy who has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which is an awful condition that leads to an early death. Mike is at the beach ostensibly to recover from a bout of pneumonia which has weakened his already overtaxed system. He wants to do stuff other kids his age can, play with his dog, fly a kite, go to the amusement park. Dev can set the last one up but Mike's mother is worried about straining his heart. But more importantly the kid has the sight and maybe some other psychic stuff going on. He's a harbinger for changes coming for Dev and spends a lot of his time being mysterious and passing along obscure messages. Which is fine, but often when we meet disabled folks in stories they are there for a specific task. How often do you read a book, or watch a movie, or a TV show were someone is just plain disabled, not for a “special” reason but because being disabled is just part of the human condition? Virtually everyone will be disabled at some point, whether from an illness or accident, a congenital condition or old age, so shouldn't the characters we encounter reflect this variety?

Despite my exasperation with that trope and the general whining of Dev I managed to enjoy the book. Dev's friends that he makes at his boarding house are adorable and the behind the scenes action at the amusement park was terrific. The amusement park is to the world of carnies as burlesque is to vaudeville. The employees have their own language, some of it made up and some of it traditional carny language. Some of it is a bit inconsistent, with one explanation in the text and another one in the note by the author at the back of the book. But all nitpicking aside Joyland is a fun summer read, filled with the sounds, sights and smells of the seaside. If you can't get to the beach yourself Joyland might be the next best thing.

I was going to dig up an excerpt for you but you might have more fun finding one yourself. As of deadline Googling Joyland excerpt brought up several sites that all claimed to have an exclusive excerpt. Can they all be exclusive? Maybe if they came from random spots in the book, which would be a bit odd.

Bonus Treat:
This week's bonus treat is a clip from That Mitchell and Webb Look, which is one of my favorite sketch comedy shows. It's about two writers who create a medical drama but can't be bothered to do any actual research.