Though the fact is probably sending Harold Bloom into cardiac arrest, it is past-time that we acknowledge that Stephen King (born 1947) is one of the Great Men of American Letters. This has been a contentious point among critics and academics – King is an unashamedly commercial writer (of horror and fantasy fiction, yet!), is pointedly ‘non-literary,’ and, worse still, extremely popular. Three points which would destroy the critical reputation of any writer.
But … King has proven to be just not any writer. The author of 50 novels and some 200 short stories, his works have sold over 350 million copies, and that is not counting his screenplays, reviews and essays. His novel, 11/22/63, takes as its conceit a time traveler seeking to stop the Kennedy assassination, and was one of the most satisfying reads I’ve had in some time.
Why has it taken so long for King to finally be rewarded with critical acclaim he so richly (abundantly!) deserves? I would venture to guess that much of it has to do with class. Arts criticism in the US is largely conceived along lines of social class; most anything embraced by “the people” is instantly suspect, and critics who take it seriously do so at their peril. This is not to say that all Pop Culture is worthy; most of it, in fact, is trash. But not all success is suspect – sometimes, artists become wealthy and beloved simply because … they are good at what they do.
These thoughts were in my head while I started the summer by reading King’s charming, sweet and gently nostalgic novel, Joyland. Though King is celebrated for his horrors and his deft control of suspense, for this reviewer, his real genius lies in recording the experience of the boyhood of American Baby Boomers.
King is, in fact, the Poet Laureate of Boyhood. The portions of his novels that always affected me most were the sections featuring his young adult protagonists. Adolescent males are found in books as diverse as It, Salem’s Lot, Christine, and Hearts in Atlantis, as well as his masterful short story The Body. I always felt that King had a peculiar knack for describing the experience of boyhood, with its rich joys, its even richer longings, its glorious victories and its often unforgettable defeats. It is the thing he does best.
Joyland is set in a North Carolina amusement park in 1973. The protagonist is Devin Jones, a student at the University of New Hampshire who takes a summer job at Joyland amusement park. Devin finds that he has a talent for "wearing the fur," Joyland-talk for portraying Howie the Happy Hound, the park’s mascot. One day, he saves a child from choking on a park hot dog. The heroics earn him the trust and admiration of the park's owner, and he receives additional responsibilities.
As summer goes on, Devin and his friends learn that several years earlier a girl had been murdered in the haunted house attraction, and her ghost still haunts the ride. Of course, Devin and his friends investigate the story; while doing so, Devin also befriends a frail, wheelchair bound boy and his mother.
It’s important to note that the tone of the book is much more important than its Hardy-Boys-At-The Fair plot, and that tone is one of wistful nostalgia. Devin straddles childhood and adulthood throughout the novel. He loses his virginity, learns the fragility of life, and comes to the conclusion that people are not always as they seem. The book is told in flashback by the now-adult Devin, who looks on at his younger self with a sometimes rueful eye.
One of the many touching things about Devin is that he genuinely likes children, which is rare in a young adult. Dressing up as Howie the Happy Hound is a noble calling, as Devin’s boss explains to him: This is a badly broken world, full of wars and cruelty and senseless tragedy. Every human being who inhabits it is served his or her portion of unhappiness and wakeful nights. . . . Given such sad but undeniable facts of the human condition, you have been given a priceless gift this summer: you are here to sell fun.
It could almost be King’s manifesto.
At this point, I must confess that reading King in the key of Adolescent Boy will often make this reviewer cry. I did not cry while reading The Body … I wept. King connects with our collective youth in a way that few writers can, and whenever I read his books I am confronted by the stark, often terrible realization of all that I have lost with adulthood. Somehow, there is a very young man deep inside of King’s psyche who remembers exactly how it was. Much like Ray Bradbury, to read Stephen King is to be young again.
In that respect, Joyland does not disappoint, and I found myself crying as Devin made that often agonizing transition from boyhood to adulthood. The plot of Joyland may only “get the job done,” but the character of Devin is the kind of thing that makes King, in all his messy glory, a “literary writer.”
Joyland is a novel about summer and about our shared American experience. Read it before the season ends.