Looking for Joy in a Broken World: Review of Stephen King’s Joyland

JoylandOne of my goals for the summer was to read an “it” book, a new bestseller that’s getting a lot of hype. I decided that my “it” book for this summer would be Joyland by Stephen King. King had announced that he’d only be releasing the book in hardcopy, which intrigued me. The retro cover also grabbed my attention. The buzz worked, and I pre-ordered my copy.

Releasing the book as a paperback enhanced the total Joyland experience. Reading the book is a fun little time warp to the 1970s. Kudos to King for not releasing it as an e-book. Reading a digital copy of Joyland would have lessened the experience.

The book is about Devin Jones, a college student from the Northeast who takes a summer job in North Carolina working at a small, independent amusement park called Joyland. It’s 1973, and King communicates the setting artfully. As I read the book, I felt like I understood the spirit of the 1970s, and it made me a little nostalgic for a decade that I don’t even remember.

The book is a coming of age story for Devin Jones, but it’s also a supernatural crime thriller. Jones comes to terms with his changing life and solves a murder that happened at the amusement park years previous. Supposedly the haunted house is really haunted.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It’s easy to sympathize with Devin, and I found his experiences working at the amusement park fun and entertaining. King reveled in the “carny” aspect of the book, even inventing a special carny talk for the characters. However, the book is at its best when it explores the relationships that Devin forms in North Carolina. Even the minor characters feel like they keep living and breathing when they’re not in the scene. With just a few words, King makes the reader understand who these people are and where they come from.

As for the mystery, well… A crime imprint published the book. It’s promoted as a crime novel. There is a crime in the novel. But honestly, the book isn’t about the crime. The crime and mystery aspect seem tacked on. King could have stripped the murder and its solution from the book without harming the book’s narrative. Actually, if he had stripped out the crime and just written a book about Devin’s experiences at Joyland, the book might have been better. At times while reading the book, I forgot that a crime had even been committed. Don’t read this book if you’re looking for a hard-boiled detective story.

The book is called Joyland, but perhaps a better title would have been Bittersweetland. There’s a lot of love in this book, but there’s also a lot of hurt. King shows us that in this world the two walk hand in hand. The pain in life heightens our understanding of the joy. Devin and his friends don’t necessarily act the way we’d want them to, but we get the impression that they’re just trying to find something worthwhile in this broken world.

Back in May, King told NPR that he believed in God.

I choose to believe it. … I mean, there’s no downside to that. If you say, ‘Well, OK, I don’t believe in God. There’s no evidence of God,’ then you’re missing the stars in the sky and you’re missing the sunrises and sunsets and you’re missing the fact that bees pollinate all these crops and keep us alive and the way that everything seems to work together. Everything is sort of built in a way that to me suggests intelligent design. But, at the same time, there’s a lot of things in life where you say to yourself, ‘Well, if this is God’s plan, it’s very peculiar,’ and you have to wonder about that guy’s personality — the big guy’s personality. And the thing is — I may have told you last time that I believe in God — what I’m saying now is I choose to believe in God, but I have serious doubts and I refuse to be pinned down to something that I said 10 or 12 years ago. I’m totally inconsistent.

Joyland exhibits his reserved theism. A reoccurring theme in the book is that there’s something on the other side. When the pain comes, someone steps in and reassures the skeptics that there’s more to life than this. Joyland remains agnostic about what exactly is over there, and the book’s only Christian comes off as looking pretty bad. But King wants to believe in some kind of God, and with Joyland, he tries to convince his readers that there’s more to life than what we can see.

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