It’s the story of one 21-year-old Devin Jones, how he lost his first love, wore a dog suit and solved a murder while working a summer job at a dilapidated indie carny with colourful characters, a secret language and a ghost.
The ghost of Linda Gray fittingly haunts a ride called Horror House. Her killer was never caught, but some can still see Linda at the site of her murder, holding her hands out, appealing for help.
The crime and the ghost are secondary; the main focus is on Devin as a young man. Similar to King’s other nostalgic tales, such as The Body or Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, Joyland is a sepia-toned account told in the first person by an older Devin. King balances his storytelling well; the reminiscence never feels manufactured or saccharine, but genuinely heartfelt. Devin’s girl troubles and emotions are, after all, known to all young men.
Naturally, Devin’s experiences go above and beyond the norm; with the help of his friends and co-workers Erin and Tom, he begins to research the murder of Linda Gray, eventually figuring out the clues (this is a Hard Case Crime novel, after all). Along the way Devin befriends a dying boy and his mother, who become instrumental in the redemption of both Linda Gray and Devin himself.
The setting, a second-tier carny, is a world unto itself, complete with its own slang, the Talk. Full of terms and expressions such as “rubes” or “tipsed” or “carny-from-carny”, the secret carnival lingo is half invented, but most of it is based on real slang and all of it works to create an atmosphere that convincingly transports the reader in both time and place.
The slang may have inspired King to write some of the best storytelling of his long career; the language flows effortlessly, filled with small details, humour and warmth. King’s always been a great storyteller, but Joyland is something exceptional. In spite of being low on horror and action, the first three quarters of the book are spellbinding, a true testament to the power of fiction. The final quarter, with its emphasis on the crime, feels almost unnecessary.