You gotta agree - Stephen King can tell a story like few others can.
Maybe it's because he can see the world in the way most of us do not, and then grants us the privilege to experience it through his eyes for a few hundred pages - the world that can be unsettling and scary and fascinating and different in subtle little ways that change the way you view it - at least for a little while.
Add to it that Stephen King also can do nostalgia like no other (well, perhaps excluding Bradbury - and there are very Bradbury-esque notes in this book about a carnival an amusement park) - nostalgia not really for a specific place or a specific time period but rather for being young and idealistic and resilient and yet fragile, cynical and innocent at the same time; making the readers long for something they have all experienced or will yet experience - even if their own experiences were (or will be) nothing like what King talks about.
It's really the longing for youth from the distance of years, wistful and melancholic, seen through the sharp and yet distorted lenses of a few decades passed, with the hope and bittersweetness and gentle quiet regret that such look into the long-ago can bring; the glance into the time that seemed simpler and more innocent because you back then were simpler and more innocent and vulnerable yourself.
"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 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."
And add to it his knack for truly fantastic, amazing characterization, creating in the pages of his stories people that are alive, real, recognizable (for better or for worse); characters that inhabit the settings that with a few casual phrases turn hauntingly real, come alive from the paperback pages - and here, dear reader, we have Joyland.
"That fall was the most beautiful of my life. Even forty years later I can say that. And I was never so unhappy, I can say that, too."
Devin Jones is a poor college student with a newly broken heart and "such a really bad case of the twenty-ones", taking up a summer job at Joyland amusement park in North Carolina in the time when banning smoking at such venues was a strange new thing. He is young, charmingly naive, and unhappy - and a carny life could do him some good (granted, this life, unbeknownst to him, also comes with an old unsolved murder mystery and some ghosts, and a kid with supernatural ability, and a deranged mysterious serial killer). It's a setup for a coming-of-age story, a few life-changing months that are impossible to forget - and such it is (but a *King* version - think 'The Body' rather than 'David Copperfield), but told by King in his trademark casual 'Uncle Stevie' voice full of effortless grasp of perfect storytelling it grows and comes to life.
And suddenly we can see and hear the hot summer days, and the creaking of the giant Ferris wheel operated by the friendly Lane Hardy, and the happy screams of children as Howie the Hound (played with unexpected happiness by a twenty-one-year-old unhappy and brooding kid in his spare time listening to The Doors and entertaining suicidal thoughts while nursing his first real heartbreak), and the shrieks coming from the Horror House - rumored to be haunted by a girl with a blue Alice band - manned by a surly Eddie Parks who always wears gloves, even in summer heat, and the happy barks of a dog and happy voice of a young boy watching the kite fly up into the sky, and a kiss from a lovely girl who is no more than a friend, and the groaning of the Spin in the storm, and the eyes of a maniac, and beach fire and beer and smores, and the excited buzz of the crowds in Joyland - an amusement park (or, really, more of an overgrown carnival that knows it has not that much longer left) that, after all, as its owner knows very well, sells fun.
And we see the humanity of his characters shine like you wouldn't believe.
"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 are precious."
Joyland appears to have been presented as a crime story, a noir novel complete with a cover (a redheaded bombshell in a skimpy green dress, eyes wide and mouth open in an exaggerated shocked surprise) that is designed to help it seamlessly blend in with other occupants of a gas station cheap paperback rack. But it's not a crime noir story, nossir, trust me. And it's not a 'typical' King novel in a way media and those only marginally familiar with King think of his works. But, on the other hand, it is a 'classic' King, really - the one who has penned Shawshank and The Body and The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon and 11/22/63 - the one who transcends his pidgeonholed role as the King of Horror, the one who knows that it's the depths of the human nature that make life both terrifying and wonderful, the one who takes the trip down the Memory Lane and brings us a story of people being shaped by seemingly small events that happen around them. And this is the thing about this book - it's not about the horror (there's none; the scary things are the everyday things that happen to people - death, loss, loneliness) or the mystery (the murder story is pushed so far into the background it almost fades out of sight) or the supernatural (it's hiding in the background right next to murder mystery). It's simply a book about people. It's about getting into Devin Jones's head (metaphorically, of course) and taking a life experience alongside him through the eyes of his older self, seeing him change and grow a bit at a time, and missing a part of us we left behind when we had to grow up, too.
At under 300 pages, this book is a tiny offering compared to King's as of late habitual door-stoppers, and it could have easily been developed more, stretched out to greater lengths and depths exploring the paranormal bits that have largely taken the backseat, exploring more of Mike and Annie's stories, bringing the murder mystery closer to the forefront, exploring more of the noir-ish promise the purposefully tacky book cover promised. Yes, it could have done all of that in the "usual" King fashion, yes.
But you know what? I'm glad he left it at this compact size, choosing instead to simply focus on a story of a young unhappy man coming into his own over a few months in the shadow of an amusement park where they "sell fun", playing Howie the Happy Hound on suffocatingly hot summer days (fifteen-minute shifts only!), looking at the world from the top of the Spin, thinking about the ghost in the Horror House while nursing his broken heart the way only the young can, flying a kite once a while, and all throughout going through the little subtle changes that bring you into the rest of your life, into adulthood, away from Joyland, into a world with sharp edges and hard corners.
"When it comes to the past, *everyone* writes fiction."
True, but few can do it as scarily well as King.
Fantastic. Almost perfect.
And you don't even have to be a fan to appreciate it. Trust me.