Joyland, Stephen King's latest for the Hard Case Crime imprint, is a classic case of not being able to judge a book by its cover. Said cover promises lurid cheap thrills in a carnival setting - say I, bring it on! What the book itself offers is a carnival setting, but rather than cheap thrills we get a nostalgic look back at a young man's coming-of-age.
It's 1973 and college student Devin Jones is on the brink of breaking up with his first serious girlfriend, and though he half-suspects the breakup is coming, when it does happen it's enough to send him a bit off the rails. Far enough, at least, to take a summer job at the Joyland amusement park on the North Carolina coast. What Devin intends only as escape ends up being a fairly enjoyable experience, so much so that he ends up taking a year off school and hiring on at Joyland all year, helping to maintain the park. As the autumn progresses, Devin learns more about the ghost that may haunt the park's funhouse, and makes a life-changing acquaintance with a young woman and her son who live near Devin's rooming house.
Joyland is a curious book in that it's enjoyable read, while at the same time its story's elements don't really mesh together. Yes, there's a ghost at the park but we never feel invested in the ghost or the long-ago murder that put her restless spirit there - Devin's friends are the ones who see the ghost and investigate the murder. The uncovering of the murderer's identity seems almost an afterthought, as do the psychic powers of the young boy Devin befriends. It's as if King realized his story was entirely lacking in the supernatural and threw in some elements. I'd almost rather he hadn't.
What Joyland is successful at is capturing the melancholy of heartbroken youth, and the simple pleasures of a seaside amusement park before such things became all corporatized. Particularly enjoyable are the scenes when Devin takes on a task he's been dreading - "wearing the fur" as the park's mascot, Howie the Hound - and finding it to be a joyful experience, and something he's darned good at.
It's enjoyable if not terribly substantial, as long as you go into it understanding that the cheap lurid thrills promised by the cover are not to be found here.