Given the book’s pulpy cover with a buxom redhead, I thought Joyland would be some kind of hard-boiled exploitationy romp. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it’s actually a quiet, classic Stephen King-type coming of age story, albeit one for twenty-somethings instead of kids. The story swirls around events at an independent amusement park in 1970s North Carolina called Joyland. The park has a mysterious old owner, always impeccably dressed (I pictured Atlanta Falcons’ club owner Arthur Blank) with a twinkle in his eye. It also has its own share of classic carnival workers – misfits of all ages and backgrounds. They’ve got a new co-worker – college student Devin “Dev” Jones answers an ad in the paper for seasonal workers and leaves his girlfriend and widower father in his home state to head down to the park.
When he learns there’s a cheap place to rent just down the beach from the park, Dev wanders down the street to find an old dame of a woman more than willing to let rooms for park employees. In his daily commutes, he also frequently sees a mom with a precocious but sick child. As I mentioned, everything swirls around Joyland. All of these people are connected. How? And why?
The story takes its time unfolding – not all that much happens until the very end. That’s probably what I loved the most about this book. It’s as slow and lazy and a Southern summer afternoon. The narrator peppers in lots of observations about life, listening to records, drinking beer on the beach with friends, and the unreliable compass of being hot for unattainable and unknowable people close to you.