Part one of my Joyland review focused mainly on my emotional reactions to the novel, and that felt, to me, like the right tack to take: it's an emotional novel, blatantly and unashamedly so, and I really can't imagine that Stephen King would want you to take it any other way.
There are certainly other aspects of the novel that deserve attention, though, and chief among them has got to be the murder-mystery element. After all, this is a mystery novel, one published by Hard Case Crime, and King was invested enough in the idea that he opted to forgo an e-book publication in favor of having people enjoy the novel in a pulp-paperback format, like crime-novel readers of yore would have done.
We're going to cover that decision in part three of this review. (Spoilers: I think it was a miscalculation, but also kinda don't care one way or another.)
Speaking of spoilers, since this post is going to focus on the murder mystery, there are going to be spoilers aplenty. Yes, I will be talking about whodunit. Yes, I will be talking about other things you don't want to know unless you've read the novel. Let's be clear about that.
So if you want to remain unsullied, here's your chance to bow out.
To provide some cushion, I shall now post amusing cat GIFs, which I saw on Joe Hill's Tumblr (he reblogged it from Wil Wheaton's, and Wheaton got it from Olenna Redwyne's; the original post can be found here. By the way, I don't think that's the real Olenna Redwyne; if it is, it certainly makes my use of the word "unsullied" richer with added meaning.)
Them some sad-ass cats there, boy.
Alrighty, then. Now that the Sad Cat Diaries have been dispensed with, let's get into Joyland.
Longtime King fans -- or, at least, knowledgeable King fans -- will recall that the author's first book for Hard Case Crime was The Colorado Kid. Notable for numerous reasons (among them: this was King's first novel after flirting with retirement after concluding the Dark Tower series; also: that the book eventually served, in an incredibly loose manner, as the source material for the television series Haven), The Colorado Kid has been a somewhat controversial release among King fan-circles. Some see it as an enjoyable minor work that has some interesting metafictive commentary on the nature of stories and mysteries; others see it as an unenjoyably minor work that was marketed as a crime thriller and/or mystery novel, but had no crime, no real mystery, and absolutely no resolution. It felt a bit as if Hard Case Crime had contacted King and said, "Hey, you wanna write a mystery novel for us?" and King said, "Uh...yeah, sure, why not...here's this. It's not really a mysterym and there's no crime in it," and Hard Case Crime said, "Can we put your name on the cover?" and King said, "Absolutely," and Hard Case Crime said, "In that case, the blatant lack of crime and/or mystery is no problem for us at all."
I like the book, but I can understand why it might have frustrated some readers, especially those who read it because they were Hard Case Crime devotees and not regular King readers. I doubt it did much of anything to convince those folks to pick up another King book at some point down the road.
Flash forward nearly a decade, and Joyland finds King publishing a second novel under the Hard Case Crime banner, this one longer and with decidedly more resolution. Does it fit the Hard Case Crime branding? I don't know; I'm not a regular reader of theirs, and I'm thoroughly unknowledgeable on the subject of crime fiction in general. I'd love to theoretically change that one of these days; but then again, I'd theoretically also love to travel the world, and have sex with Bryce Dallas Howard. At the same time, even. Those things are...unlikely. Becoming a reader of crime fiction is more doable, but as with those other things, I have no immediate plans.
Whether it fits the Hard Case Crime branding or not is unknown to me, but it is clear that King made a concerted effort this time out to actually have a resolvable mystery be part of the novel's backbone. I don't think it was what interested him in the story, per se; he's on record as having said that the novel began for him with an image of Mike, the wheelchair-bound little semi-psychic boy. He couldn't shake the image, and wrote a novel as a means of exploring it.
For my part, I think the mystery elements work quite well. Not being a devotee of the genre, I did not spend much time trying to figure out who the killer was. Partially that's because King himself spends very little time trying to figure it out. The one rule that I figured I could count on was that it would turn out to be someone Devin knew; in other words, it couldn't end up being some random person who had not appeared as a character in the novel. I also felt certain that it would not end up being whoever the first person was to be offered up as a potential suspect.
Beyond that, I was too wrapped up in Devin's plotline -- and in his relationships with Tom and Erin, then Mike and Annie -- to worry about it. An occasional thought might flicker through my mind that the novel was eventually going to deal with who killed Linda Gray, but beyond that, I was able to more or less avoid trying to Figure It Out. As a result, when Lane was unmasked as the killer, I was surprised, and mostly persuaded.
Mostly persuaded. Thinking back on things, I wasn't sure that King had actually done much of anything to paint Lane in a negative enough light to make it plausible that he could be a serial killer. (Which I suppose he counts as, right?)
Let's check out Lane's first appearance in the novel:
Out in front stood a tightly muscled guy in faded jeans, balding suede boots splotched with grease, and a strap-style tee shirt. He wore a derby hat tilted on his coal-black hair. A filterless cigarette was parked behind one ear. He looked like a cartoon carnival barker from an old-time newspaper strip. There was an open toolbox and a big portable radio on an orange crate beside him. The Faces were singing “Stay with Me.” The guy was bopping to the beat, hands in his back pockets, hips moving side to side. I had a thought, absurd but perfectly clear: When I grow up, I want to look just like this guy. (p. 18)
Apart from being a strong description in general, this is a strong bit of writing because of the final sentence. It's nothing special, as far as sentences go; the meaning and import of what Devin is thinking is what makes it so strong.
To explore that more fully, we have to turn to another section of the novel, further in. But first, let's have another visit from DJ Mahfah, who has two ditties for your amusement: the first is that still-rockin' Faces song that Lane seems to enjoy so much; the second is a still-rockin' (and still creepy) Beatles tune.
Kinda hard to remember that Rod Stewart used to kick a little ass back in the day; but there's the proof right there.
If that song skeeves you out a bit, I don't blame you.
Now, here's another passage, one that will explain why the "Run For Your Life," and prove that Devin Jones is also skeeved out by the song:
We could argue about what constitutes the creepiest line in pop music, but for me it’s early Beatles – John Lennon, actually – singing I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man. I could tell you I never felt that way about Wendy in the aftermath of the breakup, but it would be a lie. It was never a constant thing, but did I think of her with a certain malevolence in the aftermath of the breakup? Yes. There were long and sleepless nights when I thought she deserved something bad – maybe really bad – to happen to her for the way she hurt me. It dismayed me to think that way, but sometimes I did. And then I would think about the man who went into Horror House with his arm around Linda Gray and wearing two shirts. The man with the bird on his hand and a straight razor in his pocket. (p. 44)
I have a few thoughts about this.
(Let's deal with the pedantic one first, as an aside. Is anyone else bothered by John Lennon's poor grammar in these lines? Yes, yes, it's a creepy song; Lennon -- or at least a character being played/sung by Lennon -- is saying that he'd rather murder a woman than be spurned by her in favor of another. Yes, misogynistic; yes, gross and sick and creepy. I get all of that, and I assume that you get it too, and what's more I assume that John Lennon must have assumed we would all understand that he wasn't serious. Can't say for sure, but it seems likely, or at least possible, and anyways, the song rocks, so there. Back to the point: the grammar is awful. The line ought to have gone, I'd rather see you dead little girl, than to see you with another man. It adds a syllable, and Lennon must have figured it sounded better his way. But grammatically speaking, he's saying that rather than be -- himself -- with another man, he'd rather see his girl dead. I like to imagine that the secret meaning of the song is that the girl is a pimp, whoring Lennon's butthole out to dudes for ten bucks several times per day...until one day Lennon says "No more with the up-my-butt!" and decides to take a stand for unwilling anuses everywhere. Yep; that alternative reading makes me pretty happy.)
On a more serious note, that's a haunting passage from King, and not because of the Lennon lyrics. Devin Jones is a thoroughly sympathetic character, and finding out that he even briefly entertained violent thoughts about Wendy is troubling. It's palatable because (A) they were stray thoughts at worst, (B) he never acted on them, and (C) the older Devin does nothing to try to whitewash the sentiments.
Where this Beatles passage ties in with The Face is in the link it creates between Devin and Lane. Thinking the violent thoughts of retribution against Wendy causes Dev to think about Linda Gray's killer. That killer, of course, is revealed to be Lane; and when he first saw Lane, Dev found himself thinking a variant of the thought, "I want to be like that guy when I grow up." Here is a guy who, spurned by his longtime girlfriend, is entertaining thoughts -- albeit casual ones -- of her death, and when he sees an actual murderer dancing to The Faces, he feels envy.
I could not help but think of Harold Lauder while reading that Beatles passage. Having just recently completed a reread of The Stand, Harold was fresh in my mind. As you may recall, he, too, is a spurned lover. In his case, Frannie Goldsmith was never actually his girlfriend; but despite that, she unquestionably did spurn him in favor of Stu Redman. Harold's mind also immediately turned to plans of violent retribution, but in his case, he was more unhinged than Devin Jones, and so he actually tried to bring his plans to fruition. Not so our man Devin. He's a calmer, kinder soul than Harold Lauder, luckily.
This connection between the two scenes above is, for me, one of the masterstrokes in the novel, and it might be the element that causes the resolution of the mystery to genuinely work. When I finished the novel and began thinking about it, one of my first thoughts was, "Okay, but Lane seemed like a genuinely nice guy, so does it actually make sense that he was a serial killer?" And my initial impulse was to feel that it probably didn't make sense. When I found those two passages and considered them in tandem, though, I knew it made plenty of sense. Bear in mind, the novel is from Devin's point of view; we are seeing through his eyes, and as much as possible, the older Dev (narrator Dev) is giving us the younger Dev's perspective. Bearing in mind, and bearing Dev's hinted-at ever-so-slightly homicidal urges, it makes perfect sense to me that he would not, initially, see anything suspicious or creepy about Lane. He's seeing through the eyes of a profoundly -- if tritely -- upset young man; he cannot be counted on to be seeing clearly.
King's linking of Dev and Lane in this way is really rather genius.
That's what I mainly had to say about the mystery aspect of Joyland. I have a few more stray thoughts on the subject, though, which I shall present in the form of bulletpoints:
- The way Dev figures it out – the tipped hat in the photos – is going to be tough as hell to film without it being a dead giveaway, and I suspect that it will have to be changed. (There’s a nice foreshadowing on p. 223: “ “Now I’ve got to move on,” Lane said. “Today I am a man of many hats.”)
- Do I buy Erin’s keen sleuthing work? Eh…not really. But I can let my eyes go cross and more or less talk myself into accepting it.
- Here's a quote (in italics) from page 160 -- Mike talking to Dev: “Oh, one other thing. I almost forgot.” He shot a glance at her, saw she was only halfway down the boardwalk, and turned back to me. “It’s not white.” The next time “white” is mentioned is on page 175, when Devin has taken Eddie’s gloves off and sees some sort of white cream for the psoriasis. Now, here’s what I’m not sure of: did King intend for us to get to this bit with Mike’s odd pronouncement still in our minds and say to ourselves, “Ah-hah! Mike was talking about Eddie’s hands!” If so, I’m not sure it entirely worked; but, then again,I’m not entirely sure it didn’t either. Certainly Dev thinks Eddie might theoretically be the killer; but, unpleasant though Eddie is, what with his mouth that tastes of jalapenos, he is seemingly eliminated from suspicion by this scene. But occasionally in mysteries, the suspect who is first to be (seemingly) ruled out actually ends up, by virtue of some plot twist, being revealed as the killer. So I thought this might be some sort of elaborate fake-out. Which could, in and of itself, be an even more elaborate fake-out designed to keep us from scenting out Lane. But as I mentioned earlier, I put virtually no effort into trying to figure out the mystery, because I was more invested in the characters than I was in trying to figure out Who The Killer Was.
Before I sign off for the evening, here's something interesting King had to say in a recent interview with NPR's Terry Gross (which can be heard or downloaded here and is well worth your time). King is speaking on the subject of Agatha Christie mysteries:
The thing that I enjoyed was that it was all there in front of you, so that when Miss Marple got everybody together in her room and said "this and this and this should have been obvious to me," I’m thinking to myself, "Well, it should have been obvious to me, too." There was a puzzle element to it, and I just couldn’t figure out how anybody could plot that way. And I guess the reason why was that I was never built to be the sort of writer who plots things; I usually take a situation and go from there. With Joyland there IS a trail that you can follow that leads to the killer, but you know what? If you figured out who it is in advance, you’re doing better than I was, because I got near the end of the book before I realized who it was.
[Gross says “Uh-oh!” and laughs]
No, no! I think that’s good!
[“Is it?" says Gross. "Why?”]
I don’t want the reader to feel like this is all a sort of prefab creation. I want it to feel organic, to feel like it grew by itself. I’ve never seen novels as built things; I have a tendency to see them as found things. I always feel a little bit like an archaeologist who’s working to get some fragile fossil out of the ground, and the more you get out unbroken, the better you succeed.
Good stuff from the King, as is typically the case in interviews.
I'll be back soon with part three of my review, which will consist partially of a contemplation of the whole no-digital-release issue, as well as of a general roundup of some remaining thoughts about the novel which I have not yet addressed. It probably won't happen for a few days, though, so I'll see ya when I see ya.