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Onyx reviews: Joyland by Stephen King

Whether you're a point or a fump, you don't have to be a hammer-squash any longer. You can go to the nearest joint and pick up a copy of Joyland. Paperbacks only—no downloads for this puppy, at least not yet. You can even read it in the donniker after the blow-off, if you've a mind to.

Don't worry—Joyland doesn't read like this all the way through. These terms are part of what's known in the biz as "the Talk." Some of it King made up, some he picked up from an online dictionary of carny lingo. The jargon is used mostly to demonstrate how the greenies (newbies) are settling into their summer jobs at Joyland, an independent carnival in the coastal community of Heaven's Bay, North Carolina.

One of the nearly two hundred greenies during the summer of '73 is the first person narrator, Devin "Dev" Jones, an all-American clean-cut hero type. His mother died four years earlier and he has a good relationship with his father, but he's still finding his way in the world. He's a 21-year-old virgin with literary aspirations who is suffering from a broken heart, so he runs off to join the circus for a few months and ends up saving some lives, making life-long friends, and solving a murder.

Dev has just finished his second year at the University of New Hampshire. He doesn't realize it yet, but the fact that his girlfriend, Wendy Keegan, takes a summer job in Boston is the beginning of the end of their relationship. He should have spotted the signs sooner—after two years they still haven't slept together. Despondent, confused and hoping that absence really will make Wendy's heart fonder, he shambles off to Heaven's Bay at the end of the semester.

Joyland is the nostalgic reminiscences of a sixty-year-old cancer survivor who currently edits an airline magazine. This perspective, along with the book's tone and sense of wonder, bring to mind The Green Mile. That serial novel was also a murder mystery, in that the killer of the Detterick twins was revealed by the end. Joyland also has supernatural elements—a carny psychic with genuine flashes of precognition, a child who shines, and a ghost.

In retrospect, Dev thinks of 1973 as the end of his childhood. That summer, he becomes a man—in more ways than one. The version of himself that he recalls is almost too good to be true, but perhaps we all think of our younger selves that way.

Thanks to training he received working at the university cafeteria, the first time he "wears the fur" (a rite of passage that all greenies endure) he saves a young girl from choking on a hot dog. His quick action and carny instincts don't go unnoticed. This is before the era of viral video, but the news spreads quickly all the same and the fairground's owners appreciate the positive press. Joyland is under constant threat of bankruptcy.

The incident helps build Dev's confidence. Though he's in no mood for a summer romance—he buries himself in The Lord of the Rings and fends off vague suicidal ideation—one potential candidate for a new girlfriend is the fetching redhead in the green dress on the book's cover. She's Erin Cook, one of Joyland's Hollywood Girls—photographers who take pictures of rubes (excuse me: conies) to sell to them. However, she's already cozy with another member of their team, Tom Kennedy, a charismatic and talkative pragmatist. The three become friends, in part because they live in the same boarding house, operated by the crotchety but good-natured Emmalina Shoplaw.

The carnival itself is staffed by colorful characters, most of them likable. They grow to care enough about Dev to pull him aside and remind him to look after himself during his lowest moments. Many are "carny from carny," offspring of former carnival workers. There is one sourpuss that Dev has to deal with later in the novel, a relationship that, despite its rough patches, pays unexpected dividends.

Joyland switches gears after most of the greenies return to school. Dev befriends a sick boy, a relationship that forms the novel's emotional core. Spending time with young Mike Ross (and his attractive but guarded mother, Annie) pulls Dev out of his funk and forces him to get over himself. In his copious spare time, he also puts together a series of clues to solve the murder of a young woman in Joyland's Horror House four years earlier.

King called The Colorado Kid, his first book with Hard Case Crime, "bleu" instead of noir. That novel confounded some readers with its lack of resolution. There are no such issues with Joyland, but it isn't noir, either. Light grey at best. The mystery is almost incidental. There are red herrings, clues and a dangerous killer, but Dev is intrigued by Linda Gray's murder mostly because of rumors that her ghost still haunts the carnival. He's in no imminent danger—until he starts poking around, that is.

Noir novels typically have a dour and pessimistic world view, whereas Joyland is full of shiny optimism, despite the occasional melancholy moment. They aren't generally tear jerkers, either, but it will take a tougher reader than this reviewer to make it to the end without shedding a few tears.

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