Funhouses. Rides. Carnival lingo. Pictures. Summer. Growing up.
Stephen King’s Joyland has all of those. But if ever a book was greater than the sum of its parts, it’s this brilliant and bittersweet story.
I’ve been trying to figure out how to write this review for a while now, partly how to do it without spending too much time gushing over the book’s amazing cover art. While I normally try not to make assessments of books based on their covers, I adored this one. The colors, vintage styling, and pulpy taglines were just awesomely fun.
That said, once you’ve taken a moment to appreciate the cover, throw everything it implies out of your mind. Because whatever you think this cover is going to offer- odds are that you won’t find it in this book.
Joyland has a fairly straightforward premise and story. The prose is quite good. The characters are engaging. It’s got a great sense of place, which is something I’ve always appreciated in King’s novels. It’s a fun story, and one that I loved reading.
At the same time, though- this one really choked me up and made me think.
I think part of that was due to an odd coincidence. My mother gave me this book as a present for my 21st birthday, and Devin Jones, the narrator of this tale is- you guessed it- 21. And he’s trying perhaps a little too hard to grow up and get some answers from the way things have gone for him. Mostly in his love life, but he’s also trying to figure out what’s important to him, and why.
He’s taken a job at a summer amusement park, in a desperate bid to forget the fact that his girlfriend broke his heart. And as he works there, he encounters a mystery or two. He does his best to solve them, both the mystery of the potentially haunted funhouse, and the mysteries of why his life is unfolding the way it has.
Even that summary doesn’t do it justice. That’s what happens. But this book is about a lot more than broken hearts and haunted houses.
This book hit close to home for me for a number of reasons, but what I truly loved about this book is how it was tinged with melancholy. This is definitely a coming-of-age story, and it is about figuring out answers. But unlike many coming-of-age stories that I’ve read, things don’t fall into place or become uplifting just because the narrator becomes wiser. Even though Devin Jones does become more mature over the course of the story, that doesn’t change what happens to him and around him. It doesn’t magically make his problems or his questions disappear.
If anything, his narration, spoken from the perspective of an old man, is tinged with bitterness, and oddly, that spoke to me the most. Because I think that even though the ultimate message of this book is about finding joy in life where you can, life as a whole can be tangled, and sometimes completely wretched. And I would argue that ultimately this book is trying to show that the joy we can get from life is precious in and of itself. It’s not going to make the darkness disappear, and it’s not going to make the unfairness in the world any easier to bear.
But the joys in life- in human companionship, in making others happy, in things as simple as laughter- those joys can be every bit as poignant and cut every bit as deep as the suffering. Even in the slight bitterness of Devin’s narrative is acknowledgement and appreciation of the good he’s had. This book poignantly balanced the realities of joy and suffering, and that made it a deeply moving thing to read. Not because everything works out or everything is terrible, but because there’s a bit of both. Both joy and suffering have equal place in human life. And it was truly refreshing to see a narrative that acknowledged both, without deminishing the worth and reality of either.