You can't judge a book by its publisher. Or, sometimes, even by its author. Case in point: Joyland, Stephen King's latest novel, out this month from a small imprint known for detective novels that are anything but comforting and cozy.
"Joyland" does feature a murder mystery and a wonderfully garish pulp-fiction cover ("Who Dares Enter the FUNHOUSE of FEAR?") that looks like it just flew in from 1958. And just in case anyone misses the author's name, there's a Maine story line, a supernatural angle and some classic King gore, along with plenty of rock songs.
Never mind all that. At its heart, this is a captivating story filled with more light than dark, more sweetness than horror, and plenty of grace. While "Joyland" isn't the traditional kind of Stephen King book that will make fans turn pages until the wee hours, it'll keep plenty of readers warm all night long.
The narrator, a man in his 60s, is reminiscing about the summer of 1973 when he abandoned college and got a job at an amusement park in coastal North Carolina. He's a friendly sort, a bit nerdy, and utterly ordinary except for his lack of experience with womenfolk. Like plenty of men his age, he's devastated by the girl who got away.
King, who's about the same age as his main character, didn't spend his college years pining away for lost love. He met his future wife, Tabitha King, in the late 1960s and didn't take long to marry her. But he still brilliantly captures the doubt and despair that can overtake the lovelorn, the brooding tapestry of why-didn't-she-want-me and I-don't-want-to-go-on.
"People think first love is sweet," narrator Devin Jones says in the novel's first paragraph. "Yet that first broken heart is always the most painful, the slowest to mend, and leaves the most visible scar. What's so sweet about that?"
It's not a profound observation to make 40 years on, and it's debatable too. But his words feel exactly right for this character, a man who's still rather ordinary but seeks to understand his history ("such a really bad case of the twenty-ones," he says of his gloomy obsession with the Doors) and maybe find ways to dismiss those moments of deep darkness. "When it comes to the past," he says, "everyone writes fiction."
The amusement park itself is another vivid character in the novel, full of rides like the Whirly Cups and (groan) the Chair-o-Planes. But King doesn't take the easy way out by painting Joyland as a sinister place of screeching carnies, shadowy tunnels, and creaky machines. The park creates actual joy, especially in kids, and the narrator will discover that he has his own special role to play at the park. But will he be a winner, just another rube, or a victim of another type entirely?
King admits in an author's note that he's made up some of the carny talk ("folks, that's why they call it fiction"). But palm readers are indeed "mitts," "zamp rides" like the Choo-Choo Wiggle are for little kids, and carnies "burn the lot" when they flee town quickly, sometimes to avoid a mob. As for the Pup-a-Licious dogs, sold with Joyland's cotton candy and popcorn, they don't seem to actually exist. And that is most definitely for the best.
There are a few bumps in "Joyland." A child's dialogue is a bit too precocious, and the presence of the supernatural is a bit too convenient. But the characters, the setting, and the simple lessons about life are so vital that nothing else really matters.
"Some people hide their real faces, hon," explains a mom in the book. "Sometimes you can tell when they're wearing masks, but not always. Even people with powerful intuitions can get fooled."
You might want to put Stephen King in the category of mask-wearers. We think of him as a horror author dedicated to scaring us silly, but strip away all the mayhem and you'll find a writer who has a fine handle on humanity.