It’s not often I start and finish a novel in one day. Not that I’m a slow reader, it’s just that more often than not I’m able to put a bookmark in and save some story for later. This was not the case with Joyland; a book that I was completely wrapped up in for 5 hours without so much as a toilet break.
What’s particularly impressive about Joyland’s magnetism, is that the story, for much of the time, offers relatively little by way of twists, dramatic moments or climactic outpourings.
We follow Devin Jones, a 21 year old student who has come to work at the titular theme park over the summer to save for college. What starts innocently enough soon becomes mysterious and intriguing as Jones finds out about a chilling murder that took place in the park’s “only dark ride”, the ghost train. A young woman, whom we never find much out about, had her throat slit by a boyfriend who nobody knew she was even involved with. The tale around the park is that her ghost still haunts the ride and so it becomes a mini obsession for Jones to investigate the story and see the ghost.
But this always feels like the background story. What’s really important is the coming-of-age story that sees Devin Jones work through the broken heart given to him by his first love, and move into adulthood through the forging of new relationships and the realisation of what is important in life. He starts the story pretty pathetic. He is the cliche lovelorn teenager who thinks that having lost the “girl of his dreams” he will never love again. He aches for her in a predominantly physical way and in doing so creates a great level of nostalgic empathy in the reader (especially when the reader is a man-child himself!). But through the compelling desire to befriend a struggling single mum and her disabled son he experiences things that change his whole being. Some of these are sexual, some emotional and some existential, but all are essential as part of a right of passage that sees a lost boy become an astute and courageous man.
As with all the best King stories there are elements of the supernatural that reveal themselves in ways that are as magical as they are scary, but the human story is what takes pride of place. This too makes the book one of King’s very best. Much like The Body (which later became film Stand By Me), the most compelling moments are the small ones; the ones that you recognise as having experienced in your own life growing up. King has an understanding of subtle human interaction and emotion that few writers possess. It is these very things that make Joyland a story you will fall in love with; filled with characters you recognise and moments that make you reflect. I only hope Rob Reiner (Stand by Me) or Frank Darabont (Shawshank Redemption, The Mist, The Green Mile) love it as much as me and give us another classic King movie. I’d love to see this book come truly to life.