Audiobook Review: Joyland by Stephen King

28 08 2013

Joyland by Stephen King

Read by Michael Kelly

Simon & Schuster Audio

Length: 7 Hrs 33 Min

Genre: Stephen King with bits of Crime Fiction

Quick Thoughts: Joyland is a mood soaked coming of age tale of a young man’s last summer of childhood, discovering a strange home amidst the work and workers of a struggling amusement park. Also, there’s a murder mystery.  If you are looking for a Crime Fiction novel written by Stephen King, you may be disappointed, instead you get a Stephen King novel that includes a bit of crime fiction. While it doesn’t all work, what does work works beautifully.

Grade: B+

There comes a point in every Stephen King Novel where I can’t help but think, "Damn, this novel is very Stephen King." I have experienced this with other authors, most recently in Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, but the author who this sort of surreal realization of Stephen Kingness occurs the most with is Stephen King. It’s weird, I’ll be reading a novel, and there will be these seemingly pointless side trips that create a specific mood, that somehow end up coming back into play when you least expect it, and I just think, "Man, that’s so Stephen King."  Earlier this year, I listened to The Onion’s Book of Known Knowledge: The Definitive Encyclopaedia of Existing Knowledge. This complete guide to all the knowledge in the world allowed me to realize what I have known in the back of my mind for year. In their entry on Literature, they explained that there are three succinct categories of Literature: Fiction, Non-Fiction and Stephen King. Stephen King is his own genre, and there is nobody working within that genre who better represents it than Stephen King. Yet, even with this knowledge, I was a bit disoriented when I heard that Stephen King would be writing novels for the Hard Case Crime series. Hard Case Crime is a series of Crime Fiction. Crime Fiction falls squarely into the "Fiction" Category, and not the "Stephen King" category. Is it possible that Stephen King could step outside the Stephen King Genre, which I believe was named after him, and write something that wasn’t Stephen King or would this be too meta, forcing the earth out of alignment, dolphins to flee the planet, and the portal to the interdimensional ether to open up and swallow us like a shark snacking on plankton? Yet, just like almost every book within Stephen King’s bibliography, there came that moment in Joyland, where I was "Hey, this novel is very Stephen King." Earth is saved!

Devin Jones is a young college English student, intrigued by an advertisement for summer work at a North Carolina Amusement Park. Devastated by a break up, Devin becomes immersed in the culture of the park, and intrigued by the tales of a ghost who haunts one of the attractions. While looking into the murder of the woman who some believes still lingers at Joyland, Devin meets and older woman and her gravely ill son who opens the door to another side of the mystery. Joyland is a mood soaked coming of age tale of a young man’s last summer of childhood, discovering a strange home amidst the work and workers of a struggling amusement park. Also, there’s a murder mystery. That is the problem with Joyland. As a typical Stephen King tale of otherness simmering under the surface of a seemingly idyllic family attraction, Joyland is another masterstroke in King’s career. As a murder mystery, it falls kind of flat. Luckily, it really doesn’t matter. Strip away the investigation into the murder of a young girl, and its relationship to a series of other murders, Joyland is still a wonderful experience. The murder tale is a bit of a distraction that occurs within the pages occasionally. Whenever Devin would spend time looking into the murder, I was like, "Oh, yeah… that’s right, this is SUPPOSED to be a crime fiction tale." It’s not that the murder mystery was bad, it just felt tacked onto a story that didn’t need it to succeed. Sure, it was competently done, and offered a nice little twist, but the true essence of this story was in Devin and his relationships. King deftly develops these relationships, between Devin and his ex-girlfriend, his housemates and coworkers, and a young handicapped boy and his mother. These relationships are moving and intense and like the best coming of age story, transformational. King explores the world of the amusement park wonderfully, creating its own language, and a mood that doesn’t need to be paranormal to be full of magic. There is a definite feel of melancholy to the tale. King taps into the truism that you never truly realize something is the best moments of your life, until you reflect on it years later. Kin uses this familiar sentiments to develop a true kinship between Devin and the reader. It’s the grand master doing what he does best, with his little flourishes that bring so much to his tale. If you are looking for a Crime Fiction novel written by Stephen King, you may be disappointed, instead you get a Stephen King novel that includes a bit of crime fiction. While it doesn’t all work, what does work works beautifully.

I was excited when I discovered Michael Kelly would be narrating this tale. Kelly is one of those character actors that you often see in key supporting roles on TV, who always manages to make the most out of them, often stealing the show from the stars. Yet, I was also a bit hesitant. Sometimes when an actor I recognize narrates an audiobook, I can’t help but picture them in the role of the main character, and Kelly doesn’t look like a 19 year old college student. Luckily, this was never a problem. Kelly gives a wonderful rich performance that taps into the essence of the character. It’s soft, and understated at time, but manages to bring the mood of King’s writing to the surface. He voiced Devin in a hesitatingly unconfident manner, until those times when the character was truly in his moment, allowing a confidence to overwhelm him, Kelly did a good job with the characters, particularly in the carnie lingo and the varying backgrounds of the cast. His southern accents were soft and warm, feeling real instead of a caricature, and the various other accents all were appropriate to the characters. I will definitely be keeping my eye out for more books narrated by Michael Kelly in the future. 

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