“When it comes to the past everyone writes fiction.”
In Joyland, King takes us all the way back to the early 1970s by way of a theme park located in a North Carolina small town. Seeking summer employment, college student Devin Jones joins the cast of carneys as a part-time worker. While it was meant to occupy his time between semesters, Devin doesn’t realize just how important this job is and how it will change his life forever.
I may list The Stand as my favorite Stephen King novel but I’m not sure I connected with that book in the same way I did with Joyland. While I’m not much older than twenty one, I can remember being in a similar situation to that of Devin Jones. No, I never did spend a summer working at a theme park nor did I stumble upon an unsolved murder, but I do recall being in the same emotional state as young Devin.
Like Jonesy, I had my heart broken for reasons I couldn’t understand. When Devin decides to take a job working his summer months as a part-time employee of Joyland, his girlfriend Wendy races off to Massachusetts for her own seasonal employment. While apart, Wendy grows distant and gradually her physical separation mirrors an emotional one. Devin sends her letters proclaiming his love for her and detailing his day-to-day life working in Joyland, only to receive short, spastic responses about random road trips. Jones knew where this was headed but like many in his position, he was in denial. Eventually, a letter arrived from Wendy that effectively severed ties with Devin. Devin did not write back.
“I’m not sure anybody ever gets completely over their first love, and that still rankles. Part of me still wants to know what was wrong with me. What I was lacking. I’m in my 60’s now, my hair is gray and I’m a prostate cancer survivor but I still want to know why I wasn’t good enough for Wendy Keegan.”
Eventually, this leads to a scene in the novel where Jones, now 60, is sitting awake in his kitchen reminiscing over his lost love. He’s got a pretty good life – married to a lovely woman, working as an editor for a somewhat popular magazine, yet he still wonders just why he wasn’t good enough and what exactly was wrong with him. Like Devin, I found myself asking the same questions. In this alone, King’s writing gripped me and often refused to let go. There wasn’t anything complex in how he shaped Devin’s loneliness or confusion, he wrote it in a way that laid everything out for what it was at its core: rejection. King instructed Devin how to handle his heartbreak – sit in his room and listen to records, steal away some time to read and escape into Tolkien’s Middle Earth, anything to distract himself from Wendy and his future without her.
Like Devin, looking back I knew I was suffering from a “bad case of the twenty-ones”. Knowing now that my life wasn’t over and that things never did become quite as bad as I’d initially feared, it all seemed so ridiculous. However, that’s all a part of getting older – growing up and knowing that you’re able to face adversity and move on. King crafted a story and main character, in all honesty whom you should be yelling at to grow up, to get his shit together, to move on with his life. But you can’t because you’ve probably been there. It’s easy to forget that sometimes but it takes a story like Joyland to bring us back.
Given all the nostalgia and heartbreak, it’s easy to forget this is also a murder mystery. Instead of what Hardcase Crime is mostly associated with, King takes the whodunit portion, buckles it into the back seat and lets it ride along in the background. While he pops in and reminds the reader every now and then that it’s a core part of the story, he’s much more interested in exploring Devin, his friends and his memorable summer in North Carolina.
I should say that I was a little worried before I even cracked open the book. In an interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, King had said he didn’t even know who the killer was until he neared the novel’s completion. I had feared he would reveal the killer and it would come across as anticlimactic – as if it came out of left field. Thankfully King tied everything together in a plausible and reasonable way that did not leave me scratching my head.
In the end, I really loved Joyland and what I’m about to say shouldn’t be taken in a negative way. Stephen King is like literary comfort food. Sure, there may be more challenging novels out there but you can’t beat that feeling of sitting down and digging into a fresh plate of fiction as a home cooked meal.