Monday, August 19, 2013

Book Report: Stephen King's JOYLAND

Like it or not, STEPHEN KING is America's greatest-living author. Feel free to dispute that in the comments, but you'll be wrong. No other author in the last 50 years has had the impact on literature (not to mention to culture of literature) that King has had. He's a master of the short story, a role model for authors all over the world, and is capable of writing a 1,000-page best-seller while out of his mind on cocaine and booze. King's talent is not a gift as much as it is an affliction.

Which is why the announcement of a new STEPHEN KING novel remains a dubious pleasure. He's declared his retirement from writing on more than one occasion, only to punctuate those declarations with several new novels. Sometimes those books are ready for primetime ... other times they're not.

As a writer, he's a master craftsman, someone who can write prose that positively sings with emotion. As a storyteller? He's got issues. It's a long-standing trope that King has problems sticking the landing, but it's a reputation that's well earned. It's probably not as chronic a problem as some would like to believe; it's that his final-act blunders happen to be especially memorable.

So, STEPHEN KING has a new novel out? That's great, as long as we're getting fully developed material and not one of his rough drafts wrapped in a book jacket. While I'm happy to say that JOYLAND sticks the landing, as a story it's actually over developed. It would have made a pleasant enough diversion as a short story, but the novella just doesn't justify its page count.

Here's how the publisher summarizes JOYLAND:
"Set in a small-town North Carolina amusement park in 1973, JOYLAND tells the story of the summer in which college student Devin Jones comes to work as a carny and confronts the legacy of a vicious murder, the fate of a dying child, and the ways both will change his life forever."
I'd say that's a fair assessment of the novel, which is much more restrained than the spooky story suggested by GLEN ORBIK's pulpy cover art. JOYLAND finds King feeling nostalgic. Even though it's part of the HARD CASE CRIME series, a smallish imprint of "hardboiled crime" novels that's been around since 2004, few would ever mistake JOYLAND as a JAMES ELLROY book. It's got much more in common with THE BODY, King's coming of age tale about the death of childhood innocence famously adapted in 1986 as STAND BY ME.

Nostalgia can be fertile ground, but King's lead in JOYLAND leaves much to be desired. The hero is aspiring writer (yes, again) Devin Jones, a young man who takes some time off from college to work at a North Carolina amusement park in 1973. His heartache, feelings of isolation and tendencies toward self absorption rings true in a way that made me actually feel uncomfortable. JOYLAND is a story of fading youth written for men approaching middle age. That's just an observation, not criticism. I'm certainly the book's target audience.

Unfortunately, the JOYLAND's youthful ennui is forgotten early in the story, leaving us with a protagonist who is the definition of a MARY SUE. Devin has no real character flaws and has hardly any impact on his own story. This wouldn't be such a bad thing if JOYLAND was interested in creating tension, but even the novel's central mystery has no urgency to it. The murder that sets off the mystery takes place several years before the start of the book and is peripheral to Devin's tale. King makes few token gestures to remind us that a killer is probably wandering around the story's pages, but these gestures only remind us how inconsequential it all is. If the murder remained unsolved, it would affect its characters not at all.

Much like the HARRY POTTER novels, Devin's friends do all the narrative work, pushing our not-that-bright hero toward a climax that still manages to leave him sitting on his ass as the story resolves itself. (Note: I'm not sure if Devin's friends, Erin Cook and Tom Kennedy, were intentionally lifted from HARRY POTTER's Hermione Granger and Ron Weasley, but there's a definite connection.) Also, there's a lot of padding in JOYLAND, which sometimes reads like a dumping ground for the writer's research into carny life. These kind of details usually help to create believable worlds, but mostly feel forced here.

What works? Besides the emotionally devastating opening, King's commentary on our complicit relationship with illusion is sorta interesting. It's probably the dominant theme of the novel, and not just because it plays into how a murderer manages to go unnoticed for several years. JOYLAND's hero is a man experiencing the slow fade of his own youthful innocence, one that's mirrored by the fading appeal of amusement parks. Innocence (and faith) function in ways not unlike amusement parks: through willful surrender. More than one character in the novel comments on how otherwise bright, intelligent people will wander into an amusement park and willingly part with their money by competing in rigged games and artificial thrills. One of the book's lead characters is the daughter of a prominent evangelist who has become quite successful by applying these kinds of principles to the same effect, and is among the book's many manipulative illusionists.

But, some of those artificial thrills happen to produce real responses, and some of the book's illusions aren't illusions at all. Joyland's "Tunnel of Terror" attraction is actually haunted, though not in a fashion I'd describe as "spectacular." And, many of the artificial thrills offered by the amusement rides prove to be real enough to transcend the pain of a few of its characters. The novel's cynical attitudes toward entertainment have a hopeful streak, but it's a little unclear what King is trying to say with all of this. Is it a commentary on storytelling? Is it commentary on faith? I have no idea.

As with most STEPHEN KING novels, JOYLAND was published in June to the usual praise and condemnations. As a novel, it's heart is in the right place, even if its telling is overwrought. It's just not a book I can especially recommend to people.

No comments:

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...