Stephen King has written some books that are great, some that are OK, and some that are awful, but he has never, ever, written a book that is boring. Joyland is a book that is OK. It has flaws, but being dull is not one of them, even though the story is more a coming-of-age story than one of horror or suspense.
Dev is a twenty-one year old college student with a broken heart who accepts a part-time job at Joyland, an amusement park. He makes friends, he saves two lives, he bonds with a sick kid and the kid’s overwhelmed mother, and he recovers from being dumped by his first love, Wendy. He also tries to solve an old murder that happened in the park.
I was thinking there might be some murderous clowns or something, but actually the horror quotient is quite low. This is a coming of age story, and although the murder ties all the elements together, and gives the book a certain sense of dread, there’s not a lot of scary stuff. There is a show down with the bad guy, and there are some hints of the supernatural (a ghost, a psychic kid) but this book is more about coping with the kinds of losses that are devastating but not supernatural in origin.
The book seems sort of thrown together – it feels like Stephen King has two completely different books in mind and he just chucked them in a blender to see what would happen. I never understood why the murder is so important to Dev, or why solving it was such a catharsis for him. I was also disturbed by an undercurrent of misogyny. In general, I don’t consider King to be a misogynist writer – books like Carrie, Lisey’s Story, and The Gingerbread Girl (a novella), not to mention Rose Madder, Dolores Clairborne, and Gerald’s Game, have viewed women with deep sympathy and celebrated their individuality and their ability to survive. Maybe I’m just a little bloodthirsty, but reading The Gingerbread Girl was one of the most cathartic experiences in literature I’ve ever had.
But there’s a weird thread of hostility to women that runs through Joyland. I’m not speaking so much of the murders – they are clearly viewed by all (except the murderer) as despicable acts. I’m more concerned that Dev is so angry that Wendy, his first love, never had sex with him. Guess what Dev – Wendy doesn’t have to have sex with you. Not having sex does not make her a tease. Having sex does not make her a slut. She dumped you for another guy, and that’s shitty, but sex isn’t something that’s owed to you, dude. So get over that. Really, that’s all we know about Wendy – Dev adored her, she wouldn’t have sex with him, she dumped him for someone else. Not having sex with Dev, but presumably having it with someone else, is her one defining characteristic and we are supposed to hate her for it.
The other two women in the story are sweet and supportive. Annie, the mother of Mike, the sick kid, is initially hostile, but she warms up to Dev and rewards him for his goodness to Mike with – you guessed it – sex. And Dev’s friend Erin is uniformly sweet. She is, in fact, the perfect girlfriend (although she’s not Dev’s girlfriend). And yes, she does have sex with her boyfriend, and not with anyone else.
What I liked about Joyland was its description of carnival life. With the carnival, and the boardwalk, and the feeling of the transience of summer, overlaid by ghost story shivers, this is a great summer reading book – but not, overall, a great book.