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The ride of your life Joyland'

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King's powerful new novel defies genre definition

Truly great storytellers are a rare and precious thing. Few (if any) contemporary authors tell as good a story as Stephen King does. Back in the day, King was too often painted by the 'horror' brush and semi-dismissed. While things have certainly changed in the past decade-plus, there are still those who look at him as a penner of scary stories and nothing more.

But he's more than that. Much, much more. And his latest offering, 'Joyland' (Hard Case Crime, $12.95), is simply one more example of how truly great he can be.

The year is 1973. Devin Jones is a college student looking for a way to move on from the woman who broke his heart. He takes a job in North Carolina at a lower-tier amusement park called Joyland. While he's still wrapped up in his faltering love life, he also finds time to make new friends and discover the vast and varied subculture that is carny life.

There are his friends at the rooming house, the ebullient Tom and the beautiful Erin. There are the hard-working, hard-living Joyland workers who show him the ropes guys like the jauntily-chapeaued Lane Hardy and the surly Eddie Parks, as well as ladies like the possibly-psychic Rozzie Gold (better known as Madame Fortuna). And there is the elderly and enigmatic Bradley Easterbrook, 93-year-old-owner of Joyland.

Devin throws himself into his life as part of his Joyland team, doing anything and everything asked of him although he shines brightest when he 'wears the fur' dressing up as Joyland's mascot Howie the Hound Dog in order to excite and entertain the children.

But there's more than meets the eye in Joyland. Before long, Devin finds himself tied into the lives of people both past and present. A mysterious and grisly murder that took place on one of the park's rides captures his imagination; rumor has it that the victim's ghost still haunts the place. He also falls into the world of a dying boy in a way that will change both of their lives in profound ways. The effects of that one North Carolina summer in 1973 cut far deeper and last far longer - than Devin could ever have imagined.

'Joyland' is King firing on all cylinders. Yes, there's a supernatural aspect present, but it serves to enhance the story. That paranormality floats around the periphery; important, yes, but not central. There's a wonderful sense of coming-of-age; longtime fans of King know that some of his best work springs from the sweet power of nostalgia. He can make us yearn for a different time even if it was a time that we ourselves don't remember. There are mysteries both solved and unsolvable scattered throughout.

King spins a tale of loss and heartbreak, of love and hopefulness. It is a look at one young man as he wrestles with the realities of growing up. Moments of darkness and light are constantly tangling, to the point where it can be difficult to discern which is which. 

'Joyland' is the sort of book that defies single-genre quantification. Is it a mystery story? Is it a ghost story? Is it a coming-of-age story? It is all of these things and more. It is a sterling example of King's ability to tell stories on any scale, whether they're grandly global or individually intimate. It is also a quick and simple read, though that diminishes neither the power nor the impact of the tale being told.

One can make a case for Stephen King as our preeminent currently-serving teller of tales. He's the best there is at what he does; 'Joyland' makes an outstanding addition to what is, to my mind, one of popular fiction's greatest bodies of work. 


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