King, Stephen. Joyland [Hard Case Crime, 2013]
Usually when I like a book, it's for specific reasons--it's well-written, it has great characters or a gripping plot, or it's full of big ideas and emotional heft. Every once in a while, though, a book comes along that I really do like, but can't quite put my finger on why. Joyland is one of those books.
The prose is plain, the characters underdeveloped, the plot barely existent and I can't really point you to anything resembling a big idea or repository of emotional heft. Instead, it's a fairly ordinary boy-becomes-virile-man story set in a 1970s amusement park that features some rudimentary (and barely explored) horror elements. Not sure if that sounds interesting to you, but it sounds pretty fucking boring to me. Yet for some reason, the book is nearly impossible to put down.
Exasperated by my failure to locate the source of what compelled me to read on, I began to question my skills as a critic and began contemplating a new career as one of those old dudes who brings a metal detector to the beach. Until, that is, I learned to stop worrying and just embrace the fact that Joyland is fun. Not fun the way the average blockbuster is fun, but the way quirky independent comedies that mine the same territory, like Adventureland or Ping Pong Playa, are fun. But films are a two hour or so time commitment; not so a book. So it's a testament to King's unique talent that he can keep your attention without much in the way of a hook.
Joyland will appeal to readers who actually remember places like the eponymous fictional independent amusement park. It will also appeal to those fascinated by carnival and carny culture, as well as anyone who--in a fit of humor or madness--has invoked the famous Carny Code. King sprinkles a heavy dose of carny history, lingo and cultural values throughout the book. I have no idea if these are historically accurate or not, but they had the ring of authenticity to them (which, of course, may just be a reflection of good world-building). The effect is to lend the book a richness that it would otherwise be lacking.
The actual ghost story is, at most, ancillary to the main plot, a way to get protagonist Devin Jones working full time at Joyland and over his lovesickness for college sweetheart Wendy. I guess it works well enough in that respect, but anyone going in looking for serious horror is going to be disappointed.
In the end, Joyland is a very likable book and one that most people should enjoy reading. However, it probably won't leave much of an impression once it's done. Is that a bad thing? Maybe in wintertime, but it's summer and the beach calls for books like this. Let all the hangups go and just enjoy the ride.
Baseline Assessment: 6/10
Bonuses: +1 for being impossible to put down, despite not having a hook; +1 for 'tis the season for books like this.
Penalties: -1 for you call this a ghost story, Mr. King?
Nerd Coefficient: 7/10. "A mostly enjoyable experience."