The Master’s latest offering is set in the magical world of a fading New England amusement park in 1973. Wonderfully, the fact that the novel shows much of the behind the scenes workings of the place does nothing to diminish that magic. King creates a place that is timeless yet aging, mysterious yet every-day, down-at-heel yet enchanted. As the reader you are as sucked into it as the book’s narrator and hero, Devin Jones.
Dev is a 21 year old college student who, rather than staying on-campus to work in the cafeteria, takes a summer job at Joyland. He is soon dumped by his first love and nursing a broken heart, for which his tasks manning the carny rides and dressing up as Howie the Happy Hound, Joyland’s mascot, provide some small distraction. He makes friends amongst the summer staff and old-timers, and becomes fascinated by a young woman and her terminally ill son. The thread that holds it all together, and makes the story more than just a memoir, is Dev’s interest in the unsolved murder of a young woman that happened on the (rumoured to be haunted) Horror House ride four years before.
There’s everything you’d expect from a King novel – a naïve young hero who’s about to go through life experiences that will make him grow up, the lasting friendships he makes during a time of adversity, a strangely gifted child, an older mentor, a charming dog – and more. The short (for him) novel is packed with lump-in-throat and wry-chuckle moments, and in its air of nostalgia, loss and celebration is reminiscent of The Body (later filmed as Stand By Me). The feel of King’s more accomplished work is present elsewhere too – the section where Dev is interviewed for the job at Joyland is like the good twin of Jack Torrance’s application to the Overlook Hotel – but overall the book is very much its own. The solving of the ghost story/murder mystery is secondary to the emotional journey our young hero goes on, and if I have any criticism it’s that the revelation of the identity of the killer and the final showdown are a bit clunky, but only by King’s stratospherically high standards. I can’t wait for Doctor Sleep.