Joyland by Stephen King
(Hard Case Crime $19.99)
When did the amusement park coming-of-age story become a thing? Did I miss the memo? Adventureland turned up out of nowhere in 2009. Zombieland supplied a bizarre tangential riff on the new work-the-stalls, find-first-love tropes later the same year. The Way, Way Back is this year's surprisingly endearing entry in the nascent film subgenre, and now Stephen King explores the possibilities of the form on the printed page.
Being King, he does not merely serve up a conflicted young man whose inarticulate need for a safe space in which to road-test adulthood is providentially met by the oddball private universe of a funfair. He also provides psychics - "a shadow hangs over you" - one possibly non-imaginary ghost, and a murder mystery.
Not much of a mystery, though. Anyone who has ever dipped a toe in the genre will know the identities of the killer and the red herring before the story has finished getting out of bed.
The book has been published under the Hard Case Crime imprint, complete with deliciously trashy cover art, but this should primarily be viewed as proof that any publisher, offered a King book, will find a way to shoe-horn it into their list somewhere.
Young Devin Jones has just had his heart broken. Or rather, he's just about to have his heart broken. Or rather, it all happened 40 years ago. A much older, somewhat wiser Devin tells us the story, and King weaves his narration back and forth in time effortlessly, putting the story's cart before its horse in a way that risks seeming glibly clever on the one hand and incoherent on the other.
But this is King, and the reason to read him is that he tells a story like your favourite uncle, one drink down and a twinkle in his eye.
Having taken a summer job at the not-quite-broken-down amusement park Joyland, Devin meets the requisite cast of colourful and unlikely characters, who induct him into their world and teach him self-respect.
He makes friends for life, discovers an unsuspected talent for entertaining small children, and is distracted from his broken heart by a young single mother who wants nothing to do with him.
Guess how that ends. It's all as old as the hills, yet King makes it as fresh as tomorrow's news. The murder mystery bubbles along in the background, waiting for its moment in the spotlight.
When the moment arrives, it's effective and startling. But the reason it's so startling is that it's an intrusion into a book that doesn't need it.
This is first and foremost an old man's merciful reflections on a young man's troubles, and it's a lovely, easeful read.