At first, he seems unsure. Hesitant, even. His voice is coming out metered, measured, and his reading feels more like recitation than performance. Then, something astounding happens: he hits dialogue, and everything ramps up. Voices, it seems, help Michael Kelly find his voice.
For those used to listening to crime stories on audio, Kelly’s take on Joyland might be jarring. The narrators of Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder series, for example – Alan Sklar, William Roberts, Mark Hammer – explore every word as a threat, pummeling headlong toward finales composed of shock and sadness (only Block himself, on Eight Million Ways to Die, seems to get to the deep sorrow of the character). On the other hand, the more stately readings of both Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series (Michael Prichard, who has taken on Tom Clancy’s techno-thrillers with the same endearing seriousness as John Irving’s The World According to Garp) and many of Harlan Coben’s suburban tragedies (the incomparable Scott Brick) treat crime like literature, molding these stories of guns and bloodshed into narrative poetry.
Joyland exists in a different place, and rightly, given Stephen King’s refusal to let the novel remain in any one genre for long. King is used to this sort of balancing act in text, but on audio, where the story slows down and cracks are easy to hear, narrative credulity is crucial. Add that to the fact that Joyland is Michael Kelly’s first audiobook, and it might have been easy for things to fall apart or grow tedious. As it turns out, Kelly’s gently Southern voice is exactly what the Carolina amusement park story requires, even though our main character, Devin Jones, is from Maine. Kelly, raised Georgian and educated in South Carolina, grows more captivating as his somewhat laconic, somewhat hushed narration continues.
It’s important to once again stress his proficiency with dialogue. Good narration is sometimes undone by odd character-voice decisions (see Craig Wasson’s recent take on King’s 11/22/63, in which Jake Epping’s tragic friend Al Templeton apparently screams everything). Here, Kelly applies accents and lilts judiciously – gender, age, and origin are always tricky for narrators – allowing his voice to color the characters without overwhelming them.
It’s doubtful that Joyland will be Michael Kelly’s only audiobook, but because his voice is unique, he has to be paired with the right projects. John Grisham novels might benefit from this sort of reading, or those by Greg Iles. Or, if Stephen King decides to write a third book for Hard Case Crime – something similarly medium-boiled and sweetly nostalgic – Kelly might again be the perfect choice.
Kevin Quigley is an author whose website, CharnelHouseSK.com, is one of the leading online sources for Stephen King news, reviews, and information. He has written several books on Stephen King for Cemetery Dance Publications, including Chart of Darkness, Blood In Your Ears, and Stephen King Limited, and co-wrote the upcoming Stephen King Illustrated Movie Trivia Book. His first novel, I’m On Fire, is forthcoming.