Joyland by Stephen KingGuest Reviewer: Derek Wentz

Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Titan Books (2013)
Number of Pages: 283
How long it took me to read: A pair of sunny afternoons
Where I got this book: Books-A-Million
ISBN: 978-1-78116-264-4

Like a Moth to a Flame

Someone once said that you can learn a lot about a person by looking at their bookshelf. While my own shelf doesn’t have enough cohesion to make any profound philosophical statements about my life, there’s one thing that’s pretty obvious after taking a glance at it.

I am a massive fan of Stephen King.

That or I’ve taken up self-torment as a hobby.

It’s pretty hard to say you’ve read all of King’s books (unless you read King to the exclusion of everybody else), but I’ve put a sizable dent into his body of work. As any long-time admirer of King knows, there are the good novels and the bad ones. If you give him a chance, Stephen will take you from mysterious, haunted beaches of Florida to silent, brooding small-towns in Maine. You’ll shiver as you read his greats, and you’ll groan as you muscle through some of the not-so-greats.

The thing that will make you an instant fan of Stephen King, and the thing that keeps you coming back if you already are one, is that even the bad books have a certain charm to them. If you look closely, past the prose, you can spot the man at the typewriter, and that man loves his job wholeheartedly. With each novel, King sets out to squeeze as much laughter, as many tears, and as many screams as he can get out of his readers. King breathes his heart and soul into his work, and you can’t help but find his enthusiasm infectious. To read a King novel is to brighten a cloudy afternoon. To read a King novel is to feel delightfully, if a bit vulnerably, alive.

And so I find myself, on the seventeenth of August, sitting on my porch, a new book waiting nearby. Joyland, the book in question, is a bit of a break from form for Stephen, or so I have been told. Printed in large, red letters on the bottom of the back cover are the words “Hard Case Crime.” I’m excited because most of my favorite King novels are the ones that are set outside the horror genre.

As King himself has written so often, “Take my hand, Constant Reader.” Let’s see what lies in store.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “1973 was the year of the OPEC oil embargo, the year Richard Nixon announced he was not a crook, the year Edward G. Robinson and Noel Coward died. It was Devin Jones’s lost year. I was twenty-one year-old virgin with literary aspirations. I possessed three pairs of bluejeans, four pairs of jockey shorts, a clunker Ford (with a good radio), occasional suicidal ideations, and a broken heart.

“ ‘Sweet, huh?’ ” (pp.12-3)

4. “ ‘Son, do you know what history is?’ ”

“ ‘Uh… stuff that happened in the past?’ ”

“ ‘Nope,’ he said. Tying on his canvas change-belt. ‘History is the collective and ancestral shit of the human race, a great big and ever-growin pile of crap. Right now we’re standin at the top of it, but pretty soon we’ll be buried under the doodoo of generations yet to come. That’s why your folks’ clothes look so funny in old photographs, to name but a single example. And, as someone who’s destined to be buried beneath the shit of your children and grandchildren, I think you should be just a leetle more forgiving.’ ” (p.64)

3. “ ‘What’s wrong?’ ” Erin asked.

I shrugged, the way you do when it’s small shit but annoying shit, all the same. ‘Girlfriend broke up with me. Sent me a Dear John letter.’

“ ‘Which in your case,’ Tom said, ‘would be a Dear Dev letter.’

“ ‘Show a little compassion,’ Erin told him. ‘He’s sad and hurt and trying not to show it. Are you too much of a dumbass to see that?’

“ ‘No,’ Tom said. He put his arm around my shoulders and briefly hugged me against him. ‘I’m sorry for your pain, pal. I feel it coming off you like a cold wind from Canada or maybe even the Arctic. Can I have one of your beers?’

“ ‘Sure.’ ” (pp.89-90)

2. “When you’re twenty-one, life is a roadmap. It’s only when you get to be twenty-five or so that you begin to suspect that you’ve been looking at the map upside down, and not until you’re forty are you entirely sure. By the time you’re sixty, take it from me, you’re fucking lost.” (p.26)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “All I can say is what you already know: some days are treasure. Not many, but I think in almost every life there are a few. That was one of mine, and when I’m blue—when life comes down on me and everything looks tawdry and cheap, the way Joyland Avenue did on a rainy day—I go back to it, if only to remind myself that life isn’t always a butcher’s game. Sometimes the prizes are real. Sometimes they’re precious.” (p.220)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

“One area in which King shines is in his ability to write compelling characters. In the opening scenes of the novel, King introduces a carney who works at Joyland, and within about four paragraphs, I have a well-rounded impression of who this character is and why I already find him charming. One descriptive paragraph and a few short exchanges of dialogue. That’s all it took. While King has his flaws (he seems to have a hard time figuring out how to end his books), he is, in my opinion, unsurpassed as a character writer.”

“Another of the things I enjoy about King’s books is how easy it is to identify with the characters and how deftly King sums up feelings the rest of us have trouble putting into words. The narrator and main character of the novel, Devin Jones, is on the verge of a breakup with his first love, Wendy Keegan. King, through Devin, writes:

“ ‘Do you have a lady friend, Mr. Jones?’

“ ‘Yes, but she’s working in Boston this summer.’

“ ‘Well, perhaps you’ll meet someone. You know what the song says—love is all around.’ ”

“I only smiled at that. In the spring of ’73, the concept of loving anyone other than Wendy Keegan seemed utterly foreign to me.” (pp.30-1)


“I’m not sure anybody ever gets completely over their first love, and that still rankles. Part of me still wants to know what was wrong with me. What I was lacking. I’m in my sixties now, my hair is gray and I’m a prostate cancer survivor, but I still want to know why I wasn’t good enough for Wendy Keegan.” (p.16)

“The first girl I fell madly in love with, I met in middle school. She was the first chair in the French horn section, and I made sure I was last chair in the saxophone section so I would have the chance to sit next to her during band class. I got the impression that we both had a thing for each other for years, but as introverts, neither of us had the courage to admit it until she asked me to the prom during my junior year of high school. I haven’t seen her in…a decade? But I still think about her from time to time, despite the fact that she’s become more of a character in a novel or a historical figure than a living, breathing person.

“When I read King’s description of Wendy and Devin, I could immediately identify. I can remember the overpowering sense of urgency of that first love. How it occupied my teenage mind, how I knew, at the time, that she was the one for me, and how, despite my distance from it, the ghost of that relationship still lingers.

“The whole beginning of the novel has that feel: a sense of an older man looking back on his life in part to deal with it, in part to brood over it, and I suspect, in part to make sense of it. Considering the subject matter our narrator has covered so far, King’s introduction fills me with foreboding.

“And the best part? All the work Stephen has done is just the under-girding of the story—tangential to the main thrust.”

“So much for this novel being strictly a crime story. I’ve just gotten my first whiff of the supernatural: rumors of a haunted house. We’ll see how that pans out.”

“I’m convinced that you should never trust a person who uses the word absoloodle.”

“One theme that I’ve noticed cropping up more and more often in King’s work is the subject of death. And I don’t mean death of the shredded-by-the-claws-of-a-horror-from-beyond variety; I’m talking about more regular, everyday, we-don’t-really-like-to-talk-about-it sort of death. The sort of death that happens to folks like you and me.

“For a young person, I’ve had a few more opportunities than average to acquaint myself with the subject. When I was seventeen, I was in a high-speed car wreck that nearly took my life. I’ll spare you the details, but to make a long story short, a number of factors conspired to send my car flying through the air, turning end-over-end, until it came to a stop in the middle of the road near my high school. The witnesses and the paramedics who arrived at the scene were surprised that I walked away with hardly a scratch. My other high school encounters with death came about as a result of my EMT training. I had the chance, over the course of my training and the years that followed, to watch a fair number of folks pass away. Despite all of that, death has played a minor role in my life. It’s something that happens to other people, but will probably never happen to me (or so I tell myself in my heart of hearts). My head knows otherwise, but who uses their head when they’re thinking about death? Certainly not young people.

“In Joyland, the narrator is writing about events that took place during a summer job he took while in college, but he ranges all over the place, reflecting on other points in his life. The novel hums along, entertaining me, making me laugh, making me miss my days working with a crowd of young people, when all of a sudden, the narrator is reminded of the death of one of his friends. It comes, much as I imagine death does, unexpectedly.

“My dad is on call tonight for a volunteer ambulance service, and when I’m home, I help out from time to time as well. We got a call over the radio a little while ago about a twenty-six-year-old who was killed in a hunting accident. My dad came out on the porch and mentioned it to me. I think we had similar thoughts on the subject, though we didn’t say much about it. Sitting there together in the rays of the setting sun was enough.

“I’m a twenty-six-year-old. My father is pushing fifty-seven.

“Death is still a distant acquaintance, but I’m getting to know him better everyday. I’m reaching the point in life where people close to me are beginning to pass away. And there’s no rule that says I can’t pass away right along with them.

“Sadly, most of us don’t think much about death until the time comes to meet him. Hope you’ve made arrangements, Death says. Hope you’ve done those things you’ve been putting off, because it’s time to go.

“King, a religious man, expresses himself through Joyland’s narrator:

“ ‘I was stunned and depressed, the way almost anyone would be, I suppose, when he hears that a guy who should be in the very prime of his life is instead approaching the finish line. You want to ask how a thing like that can be fair. Weren’t there supposed to be a few more good things for Tom, like a couple of grandchildren and maybe that long-dreamed-of vacation in Maui?’ ” (p.85)

“I’ve asked the same questions about fairness from time to time. And like the biblical Job, Stephen and I have heard no reply from the Lord Almighty. It’s not a problem that nags or bothers so much as haunts and lingers. I can only imagine considering it from the perspective of a man who is older, wiser, and much closer to the end of his life than I am.

“Then again, I could die tomorrow in a hunting accident.”

“Another thing I’ve always liked about King is the attention he pays to language. Joyland is chalk full of carny talk, and I wonder, at times, how much of it is real and how much of it King made up. Either way, it feels real enough. As a word nerd, I revel in it.”

“Devin Jones is a restless young man. Breaking up with your girlfriend will do that to you, I suppose, but I’d be willing to bet it’s also a product of being young. One of Devin’s choices midway through the novel reminds me of a choice I made coming out of college. Most of my family and friends expected me to go to graduate school (even my dentist was giving me a list of reasons why it was the best thing I could do with my life). When I told them I was instead going to China to teach English, there weren’t many people who were immediately on board.

“I gave a whole list of reasons as to why I was going to help convince them: garbage about wanting to travel, wanting to have some time off before grad school, and wanting to have time to write, but the truth was that I didn’t have the wildest idea of who I was or what I wanted out of life. For whatever reason, I saw China as a way to get to know myself.

“I am convinced that taking that time for yourself, something that Devin decides to do in order to put some distance between himself and his first relationship, is among the best choices a lost young person can make. There’s no secret formula for learning who you are or for getting past troubling times. Devin decides to do it by painting walls and working a concession stand. What’s important is giving yourself the time, space, and silence that is necessary to reflect on life and your place in it.”

“Somewhere in the novel IT, the narrator remarked that the most important part of making magic happen is being able to believe in magic like a child does. What you find, when you read a King novel, is the work of a man who has the heart of a child. And I’m not referring to the one he keeps in a jar on the corner of his desk.

“I don’t have a lot of faith in the human race. I don’t think we’re outright bad, but I think people tend to do what’s easy, and often times, doing what’s easy is a pretty crappy way to behave. In contrast to my worldview, there’s the worldview of a person like Mr. Rogers, the famous children’s television host. Rogers once said that you can go to the aftermath of any tragedy, anywhere in the world, and if you watch closely enough, you will see the best of what mankind has to offer: a group of people he called ‘the helpers.’

“King manages to take a reader of horror novels—like me, a person who reads dark, disturbing crap because it confirms his views of the world—and make him believe, even if only for a few hours, that people are good, that there are helpers out there. That’s a sort of magic you only find in good books.”

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