10 July 2013

A Brunch Book Review: Joyland by Stephen King

A Brunch Book Review:
By Stephen King
Hard Case Crime

Joyland is not Stephen King’s first novel with Hard Case Crime (which I am sure is an imprint of some larger publishing house, but which I cannot be bothered to look up) but it should probably be his last. The problem isn’t that it’s a bad novel. It isn’t, in fact, its great, but more about that in a minute. The problem is that it does not fit with the mission of Hard Case Crime. Oh there is a grisly murder at the heart of the book, and there is mystery, and there are thrills. But there isn’t anything hard-boiled, or noir-ish about any of it. Nothing at all that justifies the nice pulpy art work on the cover. Joyland is really vintage King, at his insightful, sympathetic slightly melancholy best.  This is the only problem I have with the book really. Hard Case Crime isn’t about subtle work like King’s. When I see Hard Case Crime on a book cover, I know, or should know, a little bit about what it is I am in for. What I am in for should be an exploration of a slightly pulpy literary tradition, the hard-boiled crime story. I don’t expect Doc Savage, or The Shadow necessarily, but I at least want to see hard and desperate, but also clever and ruthless, and I will take witty too people trying to make it through a bad situation or two. A little more Dashiell Hammett, and Raymond Chandler if you please. Hard Case Crime offers a genre, and generally well done, and when I buy an HCC, that is the ride I want. Stephen King, in this respect anyway, has let me down twice now in this way. His other outing, The Colorado Kid, was also good, but again doesn’t fit well with the line.

All those complaints are largely unimportant if you are not a fan of Hard Case Crime and its mission. Joyland is first and foremost a book, and a very good book at that. It tells the story of Devin Jones and his occasionally magical occasionally scary year of 1973.  Devin, now an old man in 2013 tells us the tale himself. He is a pleasant enough narrarator. That summer he was between years at college, and working class kid that he was needed to work for the summer. The job search led him to a small South Carolina amusement park, Joyland. Not a big place, not even Six Flaggs or King’s Island, and certainly nothing so large as a Disney. Joyland isn’t even big enough to be called a theme park. Its rides are a disorganized mash. One step of from a traveling carnival really. Indeed the whole place has carny roots, is run by carnies, is in fact owned by a long time, and now ancient, carny.

Joyland, of course, has secrets. The place may be haunted. There was a grizzly murder, you see, four years earlier. A young woman met a sticky end in the park’s resident horror themed ride. I won’t be spoiling anything if I tell you that Devin and several of his friends end up in one fashion or another getting wrapped up in this murder mystery/possible haunting. But I would probably be spoiling things to say much more. And so, I won’t.

What I can talk about is the craft of the book. Stephen King has been writing a long time, and he is in no real hurry. There are exquisitely touching vignettes in Joyland that a less established writer, and may be a lesser writer might have excised for fear of losing tension and sacrificing pace. Not King. He understands his story and its needs. And that is a good thing. Because while this is not the fastest paced murder mystery/ghost story I’ve ever read, it may be the most the most insightful and touching.  The book is also, everywhere, textured with the life and language of the carny, of lives spent selling, sometimes at cost, and sometimes with a considerable mark-up, fun.

I’m all down for a scare and a dramatic climax but King tends to offer the reader a little bit more than this. His books have often been described as Norman Rockwell but with monsters, celebrations of an almost mythic America. I used to think this was fair. Now I think this both unfair and untrue. King is the more honest artist even though is his work is the more fantastical. The reason for this is because he writes the people, and the lives people live a bit more honestly than Rockwell, with his brushes ever did.

King invests Devin, an old man looking back with a refreshing honesty. There is no bluster, and some considerable doubt about the very things he is trying to tell us, the readers.

“When we talk about the past, we’re always writing fiction.”

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