Saturday, June 8, 2013

Some Days Are Treasure: A Review of "Joyland," Part 1

When I first sat down to write this review, I intended to do a three-part review, the first part of which would be entirely devoid of spoilers.  I'm keenly aware that a lot of people turn to reviews of books and movies and whatnot merely to get a gauge on whether the reviewer is giving a thumbs up or a thumbs down.  This is particularly true when the book in question has been on shelves for less than a week.

Thing is, I've got no real interest in writing a spoiler-free review.  I'm in this blogging business to amuse and edify myself primarily, and so my number one rule is that if I sit down and start writing something and realize that I'm not enjoying the process of doing it, I pull the plug.  Maybe I come back to the idea at some later date; maybe I don't.
When I sat down on Thursday night to write part one of the review, with an eye toward keeping it entirely free of spoilers, I just sorta sat there and stared at the screen, trying to motivate myself to actually type something.  I gave it about half an hour and then said, "Nope, that's that; time to watch an episode of Arrested Development.  I think I've got plenty to say about Joyland...but not without getting into the thick of it."
For the benefit of those of you who have tuned in hoping to find out a surface-level reaction that will keep the novel's twists and turns intact, I apologize for failing you.  In a couple of sentences, here is a short version of what that review would have looked like:
I loved Joyland, and when the time comes to revise my Worst-To-Best ranking of all of King's books later this year, I'd say there's a strong chance that this one is going to be in the top twenty.  I think that, along with Duma Key and 11/22/63, this is the third masterpiece novel King has written in the last decade (the fourth, if you count "1922," and the fifth if you like Book VII of The Dark Tower as much as I do).

I apologize again for not being able to find an entry point to deliver a longer, more meaningful version of those two sentences; but hey, I play the cards I've got, and this time out, that's what I seem to have been dealt.

So, for you spoilerphobes, this is your cue to duck out.  Go read the novel, and if'n you've a mind to, come back here and let me know if you agree with my thoughts or not.

Still here?  Cool; let's dive into it.  I'll be assuming you've read the novel, so when I say things that proceed from that assumption -- such as the identity of the killer -- don't say you weren't warned.

I’ve read a few reviews indicating that Joyland is reminiscent of Stephen King at the height of his ‘70s style.  I think I'd like to begin by addressing that, and by saying that I don't entirely agree with it.  On the one hand, I can see how that might be the conclusion you reached, given that the setting is 1973 and the novel is somewhere between Carrie and ‘salem’s Lot in length.  
However, Joyland feels to me – stylistically and thematically – very much of a piece with the older, mature King.  This novel is not the product of a young man; this is the product of an old man who is well aware that youth is long gone, and never to return.  
Lest you misunderstand me, let me assure you that this is a good thing.  Not because King in the’70s was underdeveloped (he wasn’t) or because King in the ‘10s is fundamentally superior (he isn’t), but simply because it gives the novel a strength and vitality of emotion that it might not have otherwise had.  Again, not because King would have unable to write the novel earlier in his career; but simply because the focus that he gives his narrator makes Joyland a novel that has immediacy and honesty on its side.  That focus is on a 60-year-old looking back on his days as a 20-year-old, looking with a gaze that is wistful and melancholy and dismissive and nostalgic and mournful.  I suspect it is King's gaze, or a close approximation of it (just as King's gaze as a young parent in the mid-seventies resulted in a novel like The Shining).  

King is writing what he knows, and doing so with a seemingly-effortless level of skill.  He's always done that, more or less, but there are occasions when he clears the hurdle not by inches but seemingly by feet.  This is one of those occasions.  So were several of his seventies novels, such as The Shining, and while I wouldn't necessarily say Joyland is as good as The Shining, I think it gets closer than most novels will.

But that's a discussion to have -- or not -- some other time.  Today, let's focus on what makes Joyland tick.

What struck me the most is how deeply melancholy a novel it is.  It shares that emotion with any number of other King novels, most notably the 11/22/63 and Duma Key, Bag of Bones and Lisey's Story, Hearts In Atlantis, The Green Mile, and The Dead ZoneThe Tommyknockers has a healthy dose of it, although that one is cut with a secondary agent of paranoiac madness.  Hell, you can find it at least as early as Carrie, wherein the titular antihero had more or less decided to just accept her lot in life and keep herself content by scrawling Bob Dylan lyrics in her notebook.  Let's have no misunderstandings about it: Carrie White, given half an opportunity to become one, would have been a Goth girl of immeasurably melancholic mien.

And why not?

I'm a damned melancholy fellow myself.  I've got an occasional tendency to just load up a playlist of music like "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" and "So Long, Marianne" and "Girl from the North Country" and go driving around.  One of my very strongest memories is of being in the car with a friend, listening to "There Is a Light That Never Goes Out" while we drove around aimlessly at night, just talking, with the windows rolled down and the wind blowing through our hair.  This was circa 1998.  I was in love; she wasn't, and by that point, I knew it, and I felt like I was on a spaceship being pulled into a black hole.  You find yourself in that situation, with Morrissey singing "Driving in your car, I never ever want to go home" in the background as if he was singing directly to someone on your behalf...dude, if that moment doesn't mark you as a melancholic for life, then you're living a different life than the one I'm living.  That moment broke my heart, and breaks it again all over while I'm typing these words.

I've got a lot of memories of that sort, and many of them involve a song.

But here's the kicker: that's a good thing.  That particular story didn't end the way I wanted it to end; none of the others did, either, but so what?  That doesn't mean that right then and there, in that moment, I wasn't feeling emotion that ran true and deep and permanent.  When I look back on a moment like that one, it makes me sad, yes; but it makes me kinda happy, too.

That, children, is melancholy.  It may not make sense to some of you.  I'm tempted to say those are the lucky ones, but really, I know better.
The Portugese have a similar word: "saldage," pronounced saul-dodgy, which has no direct English translation but can more or less be summarized as being a deep, indescribable, unresolvable longing.  [UPDATE:  Aaron O. informs me in the comments that the correct spelling is "saudade."  I appreciate the correction!  The pronunciation, according to Google, is souˈdädə.]
Joyland is absolutely drenched in melancholy, possibly moreso than any other novel King has ever written.

This -- as you know, since you've read the novel -- is the story of Devin Jones, a 21-year-old college student whose relationship with his longtime girlfriend has imploded.  He doesn't know it...although he kinda does know it; that might seem oxymoronic (or maybe moronic with no "oxy"), but a young man in love can talk himself into ignoring a lot of things, and if you can do that, then it's fairly easy to both know and not know something at the same time.  
Except what we're really talking about is the divide between knowledge and hope, isn't it?  One side of your brain will process all the clues, and it will present you with the knowledge you need; the other side will take that knowledge and do its best to convince the other side to shut the hell up, it doesn't know everything, it's not the boss.  If it's helpful, go ahead and picture these different sides as Spock and McCoy.  So Spock says, "Really, Doctor, you must not allow your passions to govern you."  And he's cool as a cucumber about it.  But McCoy, unconvinced, says, "You green-blooded hobgoblin, you might think you know everything, but you don't know her, so keep your pointy ears out of our business!"  And Spock merely raises an eyebrow and does as he is bid.

And hey, to be fair, sometimes McCoy ends up being right.

Most of the time, though, he's wrong.  And the McCoy side of Devin Jones' brain is badly, devastatingly wrong.  When he accepts the job at Joyland, Dev doesn't know how wrong he is about his future with Wendy, at least not in the conscious sense.  But he will find out, and everything that happens to him in and around Joyland is wrapped up in what has happened with Wendy.  This is true both literally (the breakup causes Dev to decide to hire on full-time once his summer job has ended, mostly as a means of avoiding going back to the same school where his ex, the supposed love of his life, is) and thematically (the interactions Dev has with Mike, Annie, the ghost of Linda Grey, and the murderous Lane Hardy all reflect different elements of Dev's emotional recovery).

I think I'll pepper this post with a few more of my favorite sad songs.  This next one might not immediately strike you as being a sad song, but listen to it close, and let it hit home, and I think you'll find that it is brutally, unflinchingly sad:

Devin Jones' emotional trials and tribulations are the heart of Joyland, and if you don't respond to them with empathy, you may well find yourself not really clicking with the book.  As you may heave gleaned from my subtle references, I had no trouble buying in to what Dev is feeling.  Others will read those sections of the novel, roll their eyes with a "dumb-ass moron kid" mental sigh, and keep reading the book because -- and only because -- they want to know who killed the girl whose ghost supposedly haunts Horror House.

If you are one of those readers, you and I have no real quarrel.  I get it.  Empathy is an incredibly important element of King's work.  It's important to the enjoyment of that work, too, and on the occasions when I've found myself unable to empathize with the characters, I've typically found myself not enjoying the book all that much.  I say that...but thinking back on my relationship with King's work, I believe there have only been a few times when that has actually happened.  
One is The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon; I just didn't much like that book's protagonist, and found myself honestly not giving a damn whether she ever made it out of the woods or not.  
Others include Cujo, Roadwork, and The Tommyknockers, all of which I read at too young an age to fully empathize with the emotional journeys their main characters were going through; rereading them two decades later, all three of them clicked for me, and big-time.

The surprising thing about Joyland is that King, who is in his mid-sixties, should be able to channel the apocalyptic romantic yearnings of a heartbroken college boy.  I'm a little closer to it than King, and at age 38, I'll vouch for it: yep, that's what it felt like to me.  Devin’s relationship (and the failure of same) with Wendy Keegan is utterly banal in every way.  So how come it doesn’t feel that way?  One of King’s great gifts is his empathy for characters, no matter what they're feeling, and he is successfully able to invest Devin with an appropriately shattered heart.  We see that for Dev, Wendy really is everything at that point in time.  Thanks to the POV being from the perspective of Devin circa 2013, we are able to see this yearning love as both unrealistic and utterly real.  That might seem like a dichotomy, but, as before, it isn’t; to any outside observer, unrequited love is ridiculous, but to the person living it, it is as real as real can be.  
I’m reminded again of one of the best scenes from Battlestar Galactica, in which Adama is talking to Chief about the recently-revealed-to-be-a-Cylon Boomer.  “Did you love her?” Adama asks the Chief.  “I thought I did,” Chief responds, with a mixture of sadness, self-loathing, and defensiveness.  “Then you did,” replies Adama; “that’s what love is: thoughts.”  Ain’t it the truth…

Here's an excerpt that is one of the strongest in the novel:

[S]ome things you don’t want to know.  Like why the girl you loved with all your heart kept saying no to you, but tumbled into bed with the new guy at almost the first opportunity.  I’m not sure anybody ever gets completely over their first love, and that still rankles.  Part of me still wants to know what was wrong with me.  What I was lacking.  I’m in my sixties now, my hair is gray and I’m a prostate cancer survivor, but I still want to know why I wasn’t good enough for Wendy Keegan.  (pages 15-6)

Think about that first sentence for a moment: "some things you don't want to know."  Is there a more succinct definition for the word "horror" than that?  If you think about it, a great many of King's most horrific tales can sort of be boiled down to an essential truth that we might prefer to never have to have personal knowledge of: Carrie is the horror of being a social outcast; The Shining is the horror of being unable to not be a bad parent; Pet Sematary is the horror of a child's death; Misery is the horror of drug addiction, or (if you want to go the more literal route) of being tortured while trapped by someone; Cell is the horror of societal collapse; Dreamcatcher is the horror of cancer.  And so forth.  But all of those things exist, don't they?  How many unpopular teenagers have been turned into pariahs without the benefit of telekinetic revenge?  How many bad parents have failed to keep themselves from getting drunk and breaking a child's bones?  How many good parents have lost a child decades too early?

You could make the argument, I think, that one of the defining elements of King's work is that he is boldly swimming out into the waters of despair, agony, regret, and doom that we are all potentially going to face one of these days.  He's afraid of all of those things; he's been known to answer the oft-asked interview question "What scares Stephen King?" with some variant of the response "What doesn't?"

Joyland, then, is at least partially about the horror of having somebody reject our love for them.  Not flashy in comparison to vampires and haunted cars and alien clowns and werewolves and whatnot, maybe; but, for a lot of people, eminently relatable.

Here's one of those people now:

Yes, Nick Cave knows all about it.  That song -- one of my favorites of Cave's -- might as well have been written about Devin Jones.
So might this one, one of my favorite Bob Dylan tunes:

Buncha sad bastards around here.
Let's liven it up with a little Patti Smith.  This song was written about her future husband, so it has a happier end than all of the other songs DJ Mahfah has been embedding for your enjoyment.

Or does it?

It's worth noting that Frederick -- a.k.a. Fred "Sonic" Smith -- died, decades too early, of a heart attack in 1994.  "Frederick" is a love song, and it's a more or less happy one; certainly it's upbeat.  But listen again; if you pay attention, you can hear the potential for sadness inside it.  That's what gives it its urgency.  I'm not suggesting that Patti Smith wrote this song knowing that he husband would die of a heart attack some fifteen years later.  I'm saying that all true love songs embrace the potential for disaster; if there isn't an element of "we'd better love each other while we can" to it, then I'm not sure it has any honesty to it.

What I'm suggesting is that all love -- like all life -- is fleeting and transitory.  Some love affairs last longer than others, but in the end, they're all going to end in sadness.

That thought brings to mind a passage that some will probably see as an oblique reference to The Dark Tower.  On page 87, Devin the narrator tells us that “As June wore on, I started to understand that my relationship with Wendy was as sick as William Blake’s rose, but I refused to believe it was mortally sick, even when the signs became increasingly clear.”  William Blake wrote a brief poem called "The Sick Rose" that goes a little something like this:

O Rose thou art sick. 

The invisible worm, 

That flies in the night 

In the howling storm: 

Has found out thy bed

Of crimson joy:

And his dark secret love

Does thy life destroy.

I can't recall -- and am too lazy to research -- whether King was specifically inspired by Blake's poem when he wrote The Waste Lands, but it seems entirely possible, and certainly any Towerphile who sees a reference to a sick rose is likely to be reminded of the rose in that vacant lot that King wrote of.

Blake certainly had no notion like that in his mind, and I don't think King did either when he dropped the reference into Joyland.  Instead, I think he's just using the idea of a sick rose as a catchall symbol for something beautiful that is being consumed or otherwise destroyed by degrees.  If you wanted to, you could see that humanity -- born only to die -- is always a sick rose.  But in some cases, the sickness is more immediate.

Which brings us to Mike and Annie Ross.

I've bonded with Joyland on the grounds of being able to relate to Devin's broken-hearted despair, and I've been pushing that angle in this review.  But that's hardly the only fish swimming in this pond, and I suspect that the story of Mike Ross is going to similarly connect with a lot of people who really, really wish they couldn't connect with it.  With his great attitude and his muscular dystrophy, Mike is in some ways an idealized version of the Kid Who Could Not Live.  But that’s okay; there’s nothing wrong with idealized characters in fiction provided that they remain essentially honest, and I think Mike is an honest one.  

Because, as is frequently the case in real life, there is no saving him.  No last-minute miracle presents itself, no governor calls in with a stay of the sentence; for Mike, there is only the moment at hand.  He makes the most of it, with a little help from Devin: not only does he have a totally bitchin' day at Joyland, he also helps a trapped, tormented soul find peace by freeing Linda Gray's ghost from her seeming imprisonment in the Horror House.
One thing I like about Joyland is the implication that Mike is the pivot around which the entire plot swings.  There is certainly an undercurrent of religion in the novel, and I think those who are inclined to do so are well within their rights to assume that God has given Mike muscular dystrophy – and the sight – so that he can be in the right place at the right time to help Linda Gray escape the Horror House.  And if that’s true, then it’s also true that God would have made Wendy Keegan break Devin Jones’ heart so that Dev would be in the right place at the right time to help catch Linda’s killer, also providing some happiness to Mike at the same time.  Sort of a two-for-one deal.  It’s not in the novel in any explicit sense, but I think it’s certainly there if you wish to see it.  
Regardless, the implication of Joyland is that every life is going to have some serious rain fall into it at some point, and probably at multiple points; and we’d better just learn to live with that fact.  I got the sense that what Devin learned at Joyland was that heartbreak isn't forever, except for the kind that is.  And that kind is coming whether we want it to or not, so if we don't move on as quickly and efficiently as possible from the more transitory kind, we're apt to get downright steamrolled by the permanent kind.
Dev is a fellow who is in a bone-wearying sulk about a girl who's broken his heart; it's practically all he can think about.  When he meets Mike Ross, a boy who has every right to be bitter and angry at the world in a way that would make Devin's own bitterness and anger seem Lillputian in comparison, Dev seems to be drawn by the boy's optimism and cheer.  He's saddened by it, too, because he's no fool, and realizes how dire Mike's situation is.  But mostly, he seems to be inspired by it.  King doesn't lean on these moments too heavily; rather than spelling them out, he mostly seems content to simply give us the scenes and let us make our own minds up.

I think that what's going on, though, is that roughly the second half of the novel represents Devin's recovery.  A few pages shy of halfway through the novel, there is a scene in which Erin tells Devin that if it hadn't been for Tom, she would have made Dev forget Wendy.  She kisses him, and not in a sisterly-peck-on-the-cheek fashion.  But not in a sense that causes anyone to think she is beginning something; she is merely offering him a glimpse at what might theoretically have been.  And, with some other girl, still could be.

Is it a coincidence that the next thing that happens to Devin after that scene with Erin is that he finally meets Annie and Mike?  I doubt it.  After 130+ pages of heartbreak, Devin has finally been pointed in the right direction by a friend.  As a result, he's open enough to see in Mike something cathartic; here's a boy who is dying at the age of ten, while Dev himself is perfectly healthy but throwing his health away on sadness.  I think it shakes Devin up, and he immediately feels a need to help Mike in whatever way he can.

The side result there, of course, is that to get to Mike, he's got to go through Annie.  She ends up having her own remedy for what ails Dev, and in some writers' hands I imagine that the result would be a full-fledged romance between the two characters.  Instead, everyone here seems smart enough to know that that would not be realistic: Devin has come into Annie's life by virtue of Mike; Mike is certain to die at some point, probably in the relatively near future; after that happens, Dev is likely to mostly remind Annie of Mike, which seems like a bad recipe for romantic happiness.

The fact that Devin is able to accept that without having to have it actually explained to him indicates how far he has come.  Some readers might feel that to be unrealistic, given the compressed timeframe of the novel; that might be a fair complaint, but it doesn't read that way on the page.  Not to me, at least.  It all hangs together perfectly well for me.

I think I've gotten pretty close to saying what I intended to say with the first part of this review, so let's start winding things down.  I note that I have not actually included all that many spoilers, so I feel obliged to now reveal (for the benefit of those who may be reading despite my earlier spoiler warnings) that the killer turns out to be Lane Hardy.  He also nearly kills Dev, but Annie shoots him in the head and stops him.  Blam!

Moving on...
It's worth reemphasizing that the idea of melancholy which pervades Joyland is not a negative force.  In general, melancholy isn't negative; I find it to be positive, partially because it is honest, but also partially because it can be instructive.  Live in your sadness, Joyland says; just don't live in it too long, because there is a life that still has to be lived.  After all, some folks -- like poor, doomed Mike Ross -- aren't lucky enough to get much of one.

Or, as King puts it on page 184, "No summer is endless."

With that thought in mind, here's another excerpt, one in which Devin the narrator looks back on Mike's day at Joyland:

I remember Mike’s day at the park – Annie’s day, too – as if it happened last week, but it would take a correspondent much more talented than I am to tell you how it felt, or to explain how it could have ended the last hold Wendy Keegan still held over my heart and my emotions.  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.  (page 220)

I think that's a particularly good bit of writing from King; Joyland has a lot of good passages, but I think this is maybe my favorite.

I'll be back soon with part two of my review, which will focus on the murder-mystery aspect of the novel.


  1. Thank you for marking spoilers!! I can't wait to read this!! I am reading Under the Dome right now. Yes... for shame. I have not read it before.. and I must read it before the show starts. I am actually listening to the audio...OK totally off topic. I will be back to read this review once I get my hands on this book!


    1. The entire review ended up being sorta off-topic, so trust me, off-topic comments are just fine 'round here!

  2. Just finished! So I have the pleasure of reading this review now... excellent job. Alas, some of those vids didn't come thru on my end. I'm able to see and play Hungry Heart but that's about it. Could just be my computer - I keep getting some flash player update notification but it won't let me install it. Verdammt! Anyway! Curious what Dylan song you picked; it could be any number of great melancholy tunes from that guy...

    Excellent Morrisey/ Smiths memory. Very evocative, and I think we (at least those of us with a beating heart, so you're out of luck, Dick Cheney... oh, okay, maybe even Dick Damn Cheney) all can relate to that.

    I couldn't agree more that one of the biggest strengths, here, is the narrative melancholy. Wistful and wise and lyrical. Add murder mystery and amusement park by the beach and it's American Gothic, 70s style. Quite entertaining and moving.

    There's one bit near the beginning that I was absolutely sure you'd call out, here, but didn't... but you likely will in your next review. (If not, I'll be doing so post haste at DSO, now that I've finished and can review it.)

    Let's all raise a glass to a new SK and one that rocks, to boot, and to first loves, and to melancholy... prost.

    1. I'm seeing all of the videos on my end, but I know these embed thingies can be tricky. The Dylan song in question is "Girl from the North Country," and your statement about there being a bounty of Dylan songs to choose from is not merely true but SO true that I could have picked either of at least two versions of just that one song! (I opted for the original, but there's also a heart-rendingly awesome version that is a Dylan duet with Johnny Cash. That version was recently used to great effect in "Silver Linings Playbook," and I love it...just not quiiiiiiiite as much as I love the original.)

      I am thoroughly tantalized by wondering what moment you were expecting me to call out. I think I know what it might be. Time will tell!

    2. I see them all now. Must've just been a glitch on my end. Blogger and my computer play some funny games with each other.

      Excellent selections. Love that Dylan song. Man, that guy.

    3. Indeed.

      He's playing here in Tuscaloosa on July 3, and I'd been debating whether or not I was going to go (finances being somewhat tight at the moment), but I think I've just decided that DUH, fucking OF COURSE I'm going to go. You got a chance to see Dylan, you probably best take it.

    4. For the probably-none of you who would be interested in this, here's a report on the Dylan concert:

      First of all, I only got to attend thanks to being given a ticket by my pal Erich Wildgrube, who himself got gifted a pair of tickets. So big thankee-sai to Erich.

      It was an awesome show. Bob's vocal range is -- um... -- severely limited these days, but his skill at arranging his songs to fit that range is strong, and he's got a great band backing him. He seemed to be having a lot of fun; he never said a word to the audience, but he was dancing around and seeming to have a grand old time.

      Here's the setlist (courtesy of

      Things Have Changed
      Love Sick
      High Water (For Charley Patton)
      Soon After Midnight
      Early Roman Kings
      Tangled Up In Blue
      Duquesne Whistle
      She Belongs To Me
      Beyond Here Lies Nothin'
      A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall
      Blind Willie McTell
      Simple Twist Of Fate
      Summer Days
      All Along The Watchtower
      Ballad Of A Thin Man

      Any of youse guys out there happen to stumble across a bootleg of the show, hook a brother up with a link to it, won't you?

  3. Great Review as always and as you say, never pass up a chance to see Dylan !

  4. Hey there, with Joyland being one of my favorite King novels (and one of the first, oddly enough), I clicked a link to skim your review. If you're interested, and for information's sake only, not to be an insufferable know-it-all, the Portuguese word you're talking about is saudade. I lived in Portugal for awhile and speak pretty fluently. It's a pretty great word, isn't it?

    1. Aaron, I appreciate the correction. I have no earthly idea where or how I got that so wrong, but I will definitely update the post to reflect the correct spelling.

      As for being an insufferable know-it-all, you've got no worries about being taken that way around here. You've VERY sufferable, and if you've got info, you are encouraged to share it.

      It IS a great word, by the way. I believe I first encountered it during a lecture Nick Cave recorded and put out on CD; in fact, now that I think of it, I remember where my misspelling came from. I remembered how Cave pronounced it, phonetically spelled it out for myself, and then tried to Google it. But I couldn't find anything, so I just sort of shrugged and went ahead with it. I think I may even have hoped that somebody would correct me if I'd gotten it wrong.

      And finally, it paid off!

      Thanks again!