Joyland (Stephen King)

Posted: November 12, 2014 in fiction
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Last weekend I found myself at one of the local bookstores, where I had a gift certificate from buying electronics a year ago. Their English-language selection is rather small, and last year was dominated by the works of Paulo Coelho. This year, Coelho is out and the battle for supremacy is being decided between Nora Roberts and Jude Devereaux. Neither of them writes books I care much for, so it’s a good thing I’m moving in a few weeks. I ended up with the only copy of the only book in the store I wanted to read, a recent Stephen King novel. When I was about two-thirds in, I was moving the book from the couch to the nightstand and took a good look at the cover. It’s not of a girl in a modest green-and-black dress; it’s of a girl in a low-cut short green dress after the censors saw it. It feels strange to own a book that has been thus altered.

Stephen King is famous for writing horror, which is a bit of a shame because I believe he is one of the best writers of our time, full stop. And, he doesn’t write just horror. “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” for instance, the one about the banker (Tim Robbins) and the Irishman (Morgan Freeman) breaking out of prison, is one of the most moving stories I’ve ever read. As his career progresses, King seems to write more and more about the fact that the world doesn’t need imaginary monsters like It or The Tommyknockers; real people are monstrous enough.

Joyland is a coming-of-age murder mystery. Yeah, there are a couple of ghosts and a couple of psychics, but that doesn’t make it horror. Our first-person narrator, Devin Jones, is spending the summer he’s twenty-one working at an amusement park on the coast of North Carolina. There is no mention of the fact that we were called The Graveyard of the Atlantic (the shore was a bit too tricky for early sixteenth-century mariners). He makes new friends, gets over getting dumped by his first love, saves a few lives, and finds a real sense of identity wearing a big furry dog suit in the unreasonable heat. He stays on after summer’s end, makes friends with a terminally ill ten-year-old, and loses his virginity to an older woman. The murder mystery works its way in and out; people keep seeing the ghost of a girl who was killed in the haunted house four years previously, so Devin sets out to solve the murder as part of his growing-up process.

One of the things that sets this novel apart from the typical story of its type is that Devin is narrating from 2013 the events of 1973. This gives him the chance to drop wise commentary into the novel in a realistic fashion; it also means that he keeps interpolating epilogues. No sooner do we see Tom and Erin move closer together than Devin tells us about how long and happy their marriage was, how it lasted until death parted them more than twenty years after the story. It’s sweet, and pulls the emphasis off of the suspenseful murder-ghost part of things. I know that these people are going to survive, and even though he makes comments like

When it comes to the past, everyone writes fiction.

Devin Jones is a fairly reliable narrator. As you would expect from someone telling a forty-year-old story, he’s also a little nostalgic.

We could see other fires – great leaping bonfires as well as cooking fires – all the way down the beach to the twinkling metropolis of Joyland. They made a lovely chain of burning jewelry. Such fires are probably illegal in the twenty-first century; the powers that be have a way of outlawing many beautiful things made by ordinary people. I don’t know why that should be, I only know it is.

I’m not 61 yet, but I watch enough old movies and read enough old books to believe that this is true. I think it’s part of the paradoxical nature of the internet – everyone has a chance to make some art and get it out into the public, but so many people are doing it that no one becomes famous. Besides, most people use the internet to make the world uglier, by leaving unkind comments or spreading bad news. Some days, the time I spend on facebook is even more depressing than staring at the four blank walls of the studio apartment.

The day that Mike spends in Joyland is a really emotional section of the book for me. How can it not be? The kid is dying of multiple sclerosis, will be cremated in a few months, so Devin gets his friends to reopen Joyland for an afternoon. Mike rides all the rides (that his mother will let him) and wins all the prizes. I was also a rather unhappy child, growing up with a single mother, and while I’m still alive at very nearly thirty-five, I can understand what it’s like for someone who never gets to do anything to finally have the same kind of fun that everyone else takes for granted.

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.

I also identify with Devin, in the big breakup with Wendy. Well, it was big to him, even though she dumped him by letter and just stopped taking his calls. I was married for eight years; it was the first time I really loved someone, and we were fairly determined to make it last forever. There were problems and we started pulling apart, but when I told her I could no longer pretend to be straight she was done. Like Devin Jones, I was depressed with suicidal ideation, and the only thing I had going on in my life was my job. He falls in love with his job and stays in North Carolina; I felt that my job was futile and moved to Saudi Arabia. Someone who had lived through a similar situation once called me brave for leaving; I think I was too cowardly to stay. I can’t imagine his bravery in staying in the same place to date guys where he had lived with his wife. Devin deals with the breakup in a few months; it took me about a year and a half.

I knew it was true, and part of me was sorry. It’s hard to let go. Even when what you’re holding onto is full of thorns, it’s hard to let go. Maybe especially then.

At twenty-one, I wanted someone who was beautiful, virtuous, and talented. I found her, we got married. I held on too long, long after my hand was clutching thorns and bleeding constantly. After the divorce, though my list of qualifications is still short, it has become rather different. I want a man who is kind, willing to forget offenses, and able to set boundaries.

This summer, I had an experience like this:

Ten years after the events I’m telling you about, I was (for my sins, maybe) a staff writer on Cleveland magazine. I used to do most of my first-draft writing on yellow legal pads in a coffee shop on West Third Street, near Lakefront Stadium, which was the Indians’ stomping grounds back then. Every day at ten, this young woman would come in and get four or five coffees, then take them back to the real estate office next door. I couldn’t tell you the first time I saw her, either. All I know is that one day I saw her, and realized that she sometimes glanced at me as she went out. The day came when I returned that glance, and when she smiled, I did, too. Eight months later we were married.

Something about this passage feels absolutely perfect. But the guy I saw – he’s in a town I’ve been moving in and out of for sixteen years; I’m sure I’d seen him before. But in July I saw him, for the first time with all the force of Devin Jones’s italics. There wasn’t time to do much before heading back into the desert, but I’m hoping to rectify that situation in the next few weeks.

In relation to sex, most horror films are as prudish as Chick tracts. If anyone has sex, he or she must die. Jason Voorhees once impaled two people right in the middle of it; in The Cabin in the Woods, the girl who has sex has to die first. The same thing happens in LGBT films before around 2010; the sex scenes are designed to make the audience uncomfortable, as if they’re horrific (pay attention to the music, lighting, and situation – you’ll see it).  Joyland’s attitude is different.

 “You better go now, Dev. And thank you. It was lovely. We saved the best ride for last, didn’t we?”

That was true. Not a dark ride but a bright one.

Sex can be horrific, no doubt. Chokers, rapists, and such. But it can also be bright, beautiful, joyful. Lovely. And even in a Stephen King novel, it’s not a one-way ticket to the death-house.

Usually in a murder mystery I can sit back and go along for the ride. This is the first time in a long time that I’ve given any thought to who the killer might be. I was right, but I figured it out by looking at the constraints of the narrative instead of the clues presented. The killer has to be a character in the story, not some random person off the street who hasn’t been involved in the action, and it has to be someone the audience cares about, preferably because of a charming personality trait or habitual gesture. For me, it’s usually the character I feel most strongly attracted to; I don’t actually think murder is sexy, but maybe my subconscious does.

So, it’s a cheap mystery paperback. Checking with the exchange rate, I got mine new for about $8.50. But it’s a very good mystery novel, one worth reading a second time. It’s a brilliant study in effective foreshadowing, for those of you writing your NaNoWriMo novels who want to get that technique down. I do hope that fifty years from now, when we’re studying the novels of the late twentieth/early twenty-first century, Stephen King gets a good representation in the academy. He richly deserves it, more than many an author with an NBA or Pulitzer.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s