Note: I never know what is a spoiler and what isn’t. I think it varies by person. With that said, it is possible there are spoilers in what I have written below, but I don’t think I give anything significant away. Still, that is my own judgement so if you haven’t yet read the novel, be warned, here may be spoilers.
Before I ever read a Stephen King novel, I was convinced he was overrated. This was back in my teens and twenties, when I thought I knew everything, and most of my reading was limited to science fiction novels. The first King novel I read was Salem’s Lot and I wasn’t sure how I liked it that first time. Looking back, I see it wasn’t because of any flaw in King as a writer, but in me as a reader. It has since become one of my favorite King novels.
Since then, Stephen King has become one of my favorite fiction writers, precisely because he does the unexpected with his stories while the momentum of publicity still carries him as a horror writer. I look forward to each new release, and I was fortunate enough to be on vacation when King’s latest novel, Billy Summers, came out.
On its surface, this latest novel is a thriller of the Jack Reacher genre: a loner assassin-for-hire takes one last job before calling it quits. But that’s the thing about King. There are layers and layers to his stories, or as Jake Chambers might describe them, “there are other worlds than these.” The “surface” story is for those readers who want to put in the work to see what is underneath. For me, as a reader, putting in the work is what reading is all about. If I don’t want to have to do any work, I’ll watch a TV show.
What, then, are these other worlds?
Billy Summer’s story is told in first person, and at the beginning, Billy seems very simple, almost slow. He is clearly regarded as a world class shot, and he has a reputation that precedes him. He comes across as a slightly more intelligent Charlie Gordon at the opening of Flowers for Algernon. But this is a ruse. Billy is much smarter than he appears (there are layers and layers to Billy, other worlds beyond these). Billy chooses to show only his “dumb self” to his clients. Billy is well aware of this.
Billy’s cover story for his current job is as a writer who has to buckle down because he’s been partying too much. His “agent” finds him a quiet place to live somewhere bordering the South in the U.S., a small town called Midwood. There, Billy waits for his prey, and in the meantime, pretends to live the life of a writer, one in which is writes his own story as cover. He even recognizes his relationship to Charlie Gordon:
Can he really write a fictionalized dump self version of his own life story? Risky, but he thinks maybe he can. Faulkner wrote dumb in The Sound and the Fury. Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes, is another example.
I’ve read that King dislikes the term “meta-fiction” but that is what much of his fiction is, and at least part of what makes it great. He did it as early as Carrie, where the story itself is made up, in part of newspaper articles, diary entries, etc. It became almost a signature of some of his best work, Misery being one example. How many of King’s great characters are writers? How often do references to King’s own work show up in other King books? He took this to an extreme in the Dark Tower series, where Salem’s Lot, the novel, plays a pivotal role, and where Stephen King himself shows up as a character.
In Billy Summers, it is the novel that Billy writes that becomes the work-within-the-work. That novel serves to provide us with Billy’s background, and how he became an assassin. King is aware that the “one last job” story is almost cliche, and he tackles it head on when Billy considers the job:
Billy doesn’t mind. He’s thinking of all the movies he’s seen about robbers who are planning one last job. If noir is a genre, then “one last job” is a sub-genre. In those movies, the last job always goes badly. Billy isn’t a robber and doesn’t work with a gang and he’s not superstitious, bu this last job thing nags at him just the same.
And what does King do? The unexpected. The job itself goes off without a hitch. Pretty early in the overall story, too. Indeed, I was surprised when Billy carried out the job successfully as early as he did, and wondered what would possibly carry the remaining two-thirds of the novel. Then, after the job is done and things are beginning to settle down, Billy meets Alice Maxwell, and the novel really takes off.
King fans will not be disappointed by some of the references in the novel. The small town in which Billy first stays, Midwood, seems remarkably close to Mid-world. Perhaps it is one of those “thin” places that King often writes about. Later, a pivotal scene takes place on a dirt road in Hemingford Home, Nebraska, a town that fans of The Stand and a few other King stories will recognize. Sidewinder also makes an appearance in the novel.
Billy Summers embodies what I like about most Stephen King stories: it is a fun read, and if all you’re looking for is edge-of-your-seat entertainment, it delivers. But it also delivers so much more, if you are willing to work for it.
Billy Summers by Stephen King, Scribner, August 3, 2021
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