When it comes to Stephen King, I'm partial to the smaller efforts: novellas, short novels, experiments, the quieter, more interior stuff. It's not that I don't like his big books — especially "The Shining," which remains the scariest thing I've ever read, and the 1996 novel "Desperation," an overarching consideration of sin and sacrifice and redemption, set in a Nevada mining town. Still, what makes King resonate for me is the detail work, the way he can get inside the most mundane situation and animate it, revealing in the process something of how we live.
I think of the crazed fan Annie Wilkes in "Misery," whose pathology — her evil, if you will — is the flip side of her desire. Or that quartet of friends in "The Body," walking along the railroad tracks in search of a dead boy, discovering the enigma of the world. There's a human element even to the oddest moments, which grounds these stories and gives them weight. When horror ensues, it comes out of a terrain we recognize, which makes it all the more horrible and true.
King's new novel, "Joyland," operates very much from this territory: a drama that unfolds in miniature. The story of a college student named Devin Jones who spends summer and fall 1973 working at a North Carolina amusement park, it is, like "The Body," told in retrospect, by its sixtysomething narrator looking back.
"When you're twenty-one," Devin observes, "life is a road map. It's only when you get to be twenty-five or so that you begin to suspect you've been looking at the map upside down, and not until you're forty are you entirely sure. By the time you're sixty, take it from me, you're … lost." Such a double vision — the 21-year-old actively living through his experience while his older incarnation reflects on it — gives the book an unexpected perspective, even as it reassures us that whatever happens in the novel, Devin will come out alive.
That's a neat trick to pull off in a thriller, and "Joyland" is definitely a thriller, albeit in a minor key. Published by the excellent Hard Case Crime — an imprint devoted to hard-boiled fiction, both reprint and new — it's also an homage, in some sense, to the disposable culture of the early 1970s: pulp novels, LPs and independent amusement parks, such as the one where much of the action here takes place.
It's hard not to see the influence of Donald Westlake, and not just because "Joyland" is dedicated to him; one of the best of Westlake's Parker novels, "Slayground," takes place in a shuttered amusement park, after all. "Joyland," however, is written with a lighter touch, an air of if not nostalgia then wistfulness.
Devin is a lost boy, dumped by his college girlfriend, mourning his mother's death four years earlier, a Maine townie adrift in a Southern beach community where the ghosts of the past assume an almost human form. These ghosts are both metaphorical and actual (a key part of the story turns on the park's Horror House, supposedly haunted by a young woman who was murdered there), but more than anything, they are psychological, markers of Devin's developing sense of self.
This grows only more heightened as the narrative progresses, making "Joyland" a coming-of-age novel as well, although such a process is bittersweet at best. "Those are things that happened once upon a time and long ago," Devin tells us late in the book, "in a magical year when oil sold for eleven dollars a barrel. The year I got my damn heart broke. The year I lost my virginity. … The year I wanted to see a ghost and didn't … although I guess at least one of them saw me."
What King is getting at is what he's always getting at — that life is inexplicable, that joy and sorrow, triumph and tragedy, are all bound up and can assert themselves at any time. This too is a form of haunting, as Devin comes to understand.
"Joyland" has a patina of the supernatural: There is that ghost as well as Devin's friendship with a 10-year-old disabled boy named Mike, who is gifted with an "authentic psychic ability" that is "like touching another world." Still, for all that this helps drive the narrative, it ultimately brings us back to Devin, to the novel's human heart.
In his relationship with Mike — not to mention Mike's mother, Annie, for whom he falls — Devin allows himself to open, to put the past behind him and move on. And in his fascination with the dead girl, which leads to the discovery of a series of related murders, he learns that reality is just a set of surfaces, of facades as flimsy as those in an amusement park house of horrors, behind which are hidden terrors far less easily dismissed.
For King, this is both the stuff of story and more fundamentally the stuff of life. We are all suspended between past and present, between our aspirations and our disappointments, and our consolations, when we find them, are fleeting and small. That's the key, I think, to his appeal as a writer, and, like many of his protagonists, Devin embodies this at the core.
"All I can tell you," he explains, looking back at that long lost summer, "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."
Hard Case Crime: 288 pp., $12.95 paper