This summer, a lot of people are going to walk around pretending they know carny lingo, and Stephen King is the one to blame for it. His new novel Joyland (Hard Case Crime, $12.95) is drenched in carny atmosphere, some of it authentic and some of it . . . not so much. It doesn’t matter at all.
In terms of style and tone, this one is close to “The Body,” the Different Seasons novella that became the film Stand By Me, and which I still count as one of King’s best works. Joyland, however, doesn’t have the same impact as “The Body.” King is out to play with our expectations, and he’s not above a little bait-and-switch action. But what else would you expect from a carny operator?
The setting is an oceanside amusement park in North Carolina during the mid-Seventies, the hero is a young man working through his Sorrows of Young Werther phase, and the tone is bittersweet nostalgia. The retro cover, true to the spirit of the paperback originals Hard Case Crime wants to evoke, does not entirely play straight with the reader. Yes, there is a haunted house thrill ride. There is also a murder mystery involving at least one ghost. There is even a buxom redhead in a green dress who works an old-fashioned still camera. But King, knowing we are all familiar with Chekhov’s rule concerning the display of firearms at the beginning of a story, doesn’t follow through in the expected ways.
If you’ve been reading Stephen King for any amount of time, you have learned to take the (consistently underrated by critics) good with the (consistently overlooked by fans) bad. Along with the moments of genuine creepiness and insight — for this is, above all, a coming of age story — there is a lot of heartstring-tugging, some of it very effective, and some of it done with all the grace of a teenager trying to unhook a bra. There is at least one storytelling device here that will make you roll your eyes and wonder how King can live with himself.
But in the end, the klutziness and the canniness merge to produce a light but satisfying story. The final image will be the perfect lead-in for the closing credits of the movie that will have to be made. I finished the novel with the smell of suntan lotion on my mind, and a strong urge to take a date to the Shore and hold her hand on the nearest available boardwalk. That’s not the worst thing to take away from a novel. For that, if nothing else, Joyland is an excellent summer read.