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Joyland, by Stephen King

review published on July 3, 2013. Reviewed by Mike Stafford

I love crime, and I love Stephen King. On that basis, ‘Joyland’ should be a guaranteed winner. Writing his second novel for Hard Case Crime, in ‘Joyland’ King tells the story of Devin Jones, a young, heartbroken college student who takes a summer job “selling fun” at the down-market amusement park of the title.

Ignore those who think King is all about the supernatural – his strength is, and always has been, depth of character. Anyone who has experienced youthful heartbreak will find something of themselves in Devin. He mopes around listening to Doors records, naively assuming his long-distance relationship isn’t doomed. He is unable to read the signals coming from girlfriend Wendy, even though an adult eye could see them from space. He is an innocent, a soul un-trampled by rejection – at least at the start.

The setting is pure King. A ramshackle theme park, staffed partly by temping teens, and partly by carnies with their own rich argot. It has a “psychic,” an elderly Jewish woman trading as ‘Madame Fortuna,’ who makes the kind of vague but uncannily accurate predictions that are the bread and butter of fictional clairvoyants. Perhaps inevitably, the park also has its own ghost story, one that also provides the murder mystery for the book.

While there is a crime in ‘Joyland,’ it’s by no means the main business of the book. It’s relegated to about third or even fourth in terms of important plot elements, behind a coming-of-age tale and some philosophical musing about death and ageing. ‘Joyland’ isn’t about rattling through the book to see who the killer is (just as well, really, since the miniscule cast ensures that even Shaggy and Scooby have tackled tougher cases than Devin’s), it’s about wider themes.

For all this though, weighing in at under three-hundred pages ‘Joyland’ is too brief for King to operate at full capacity. In ‘The Shining,’ three hundred pages in, King was still examining the space inside Jack Torrance’s skull. In ‘The Stand,’ he’d not even introduced all the characters. His finest hours come not in one-sitting-wonders, but in the kind of hefty tomes that need a trolley just to be lugged home from the library, books in which whole universes are created.

By contrast, ‘Joyland’ feels like a book King might have worked on during down time between meatier projects. Nevertheless, this is still Stephen King’s down time we’re talking about, and while ‘Joyland’ doesn’t see him working at the height of his powers, it’s earnest, poignant, and won’t need a fortnight of your life to get through.

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