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Review: Stephen King's 'Joyland' a spooky spin through summer

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Published Aug. 8, 2013

The eclectic terrain of Stephen King's prolific career makes for a wild literary hike: peaks (The Stand) and sinkholes (Cell), sweeping gestures (11/22/63) and intimate nods (On Writing). It's a constantly shifting landscape, and it's easy to forget even the good stuff. I remember enjoying Bag of Bones, but dang if I can recall a single detail about it.

I hope the same thing doesn't happen to my fond feelings for Joyland, King's new coming-of-age novel that leans more toward the wistful realism of The Body than, say, Hearts in Atlantis, where the supernatural merged with adolescence. Joyland is small, tidy; you get the feeling that, for all its shimmer, King banged it out over a long weekend.

But do not mistake slight and modest for a throwaway. And don't let it get lost in Uncle Steve's prose funhouse. Joyland is pretty much perfect in its pursuit of diversion.

I'm not saying Joyland is King's best. I'm not saying Joyland is his savviest writing. But this story of a broken heart, a summer job and a beach amusement park — infused with ghosts, killers and a boy with "the sight" — is lovingly streamlined. It starts strong, ends stronger. Sturdy finales are never a given with King, but this one, Constant Readers, will have you gasping and, ultimately, blinking back big fat tears.

Joyland is published under the old-timey Hard Case Crime imprint, and its cover is a pulpy gem: a wide-eyed redhead backlit by carnival lights and nearly scared out of her tight green dress. It's a puckishly sexy illustration, but I'll tell you straight off: It has very little to do with the circa-'73 story inside.

Twenty-one-year-old Devin Jones is a decent Maine kid in love with a ditzy New Hampshire girlfriend. We see Breakup City coming a mile away, but poor Dev — or Jonesy to the sun-hardened carny pals he's about to make — takes the off-ramp to heartache at 100 mph. Our devastated hero needs a change of scenery and is soon magically drawn to Joyland, a rickety beachfront thrill zone down in the Carolinas.

The park, owned by a genial, if ancient, benefactor and run by an assortment of lifelong "ride jockeys," is a metaphor for the transitional refueling station between youth and adulthood. Jonesy will never be the same — not after solving the crime of a woman murdered in the Horror House, not after losing the Big V to the comely mom of a dying kid with supernatural skills.

If all that sounds cluttered — it's not. King is far more concerned with the subtle housekeeping of Jonesy's esteem: the confidence he gains by "wearin' the fur" of the park mascot, the awareness that staying up all night moping to the Doors and Pink Floyd is silly in retrospect, the pride of learning a trade and the inside lingo that goes with it.

"Joyland summer," King writes. "I ride-jockeyed. I flashed the shys in the morning — meaning I restocked them with prizes — and ran some of them in the afternoon. I untangled Devil Wagons by the dozen, learned how to fry dough without burning my fingers off, and worked on my pitch for the Carolina Spin. I danced and sang with the other greenies on the Wiggle-Waggle Village's Story Stage. . . . And, of course, I wore the fur."

The protagonist recalls the story — which culminates with a massive storm and one gulpfest of a denouement atop a Ferris Wheel — from the sepia-toned discomfort of his 60s, an age not too far from King's own (65). That adds even more emotional oomph to an ending that deals in both epilogues and epitaphs.

When King's rich legacy is summed up someday, Joyland will have a tough time fighting for a mention among Misery and 'Salem's Lot and Pet Sematary. But rest assured those who board King's latest roller coaster won't forget it anytime soon: the ultimate "beach" book from one of literature's slyest entertainers.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.

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