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The way of the gun – ‘Billy Summers’

August 3, 2021
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Whenever anyone brings up horror fiction, the first name that inevitably arises is Stephen King. And there’s no question that he is the absolute master of modern horror, having given us some of the scariest stories ever to be put to paper. And if that was all he was, that would be more than enough.

But it isn’t. Not even close.

That’s not to demean his massive success in the horror genre, but we’ve seen plenty of work from King over the years to show that he is about more than genre. He transcends genre – the man is, above all else, a storyteller, unafraid to follow in whatever direction the tale takes him.

His latest novel is “Billy Summers” (Scribner, $30), a book in which King embraces a different kind of darkness. Not the supernatural shadows, but rather the bleak and sinister spaces within the hearts and minds of man. It’s a book more evocative of King works like the Bill Hodges trilogy or “Later” from earlier this year, one that digs into the author’s affection and affinity for pulpy noir fiction. There’s a gleeful griminess to it, even as he unleashes the full capacity of his storytelling prowess.

(In case you haven’t guessed yet, it’s VERY good.)

The titular Billy Summers is a hitman, but one with a very particular personal ethos: he’ll only kill bad people. There’s no one as good at the job as Billy, who has turned to assassination as a way to make a living with the sniper skills the military gave him. But again, he’s not interested in killing anyone unless they’re truly bad enough to “deserve” it.

And he wants out.

One last job and he’s done with this life. It’s a big payday – the biggest one he’s ever had – but it also requires a big commitment. He’s going to have to go undercover, to embed himself within a small Midwestern community and wait. The call might not come for weeks or even months, but when it comes, Billy has to be ready. And he will be ready.

Billy’s no stranger to pretending to be someone he’s not. In an effort to maintain certain advantages over the types of men who hire him, he has cultivated a persona, a slightly dim guy who reads Archie Comics and just happens to be an exceptional shooter. The real Billy is smart and savvy, a survivor who is both willing and able to do whatever it takes to ensure his own successes.

As he goes undercover, this new role becomes something … more. His cover story – a burgeoning novelist come to town to avoid past negative influences and concentrate on the work – grows into something real. He starts writing his story for real, and even though no one else will ever read it, he comes to believe it will be something good. And all the while, he’s becoming a part of the community, going to parties and hosting barbecues. He befriends the neighbors and plays Monopoly with their kids. Slowly, it starts becoming a home.

A home that he will abandon when the job is done.

But when you operate in the shadows, when you deal with the sorts of people who hire people like Billy, there are risks. You never know what might happen; Billy’s been around too long – survived too long – to believe in something as trite as honor among thieves. When your life is built around targeting bad people, it only stands to reason that at some point, perhaps one of the bad people will target you.

One of the many joys that come with reading Stephen King is that even now, after a lifetime of literary prolificacy, he can still surprise you. And there are definitely plenty of surprises here, even as we get the same rich and satisfying narrative execution that we’ve come to expect.

I won’t go into the specifics – you’ll have to just read it for yourself – but the structure of the story and the manner in which it unfolds struck me as quite surprising, with the book’s conclusion venturing down a far different path than one might anticipate. There are some extreme developments, with a lot of shifting narrative sands resting atop a solid bedrock foundation of characterization. I hesitate to use the term “twists” here, but know that things almost certainly will not play out in the way you anticipate.

It’s interesting to see King playing with the writer/protagonist notion, a mainstay of much of his work. Billy isn’t a writer … until he is. And it is through his writing that we’re given insight into how he would evolve into the man we’ve met. That’s the thing, though – one could argue that we don’t ever really know who Billy is. There’s the dullard Billy that he presents to his clients. There’s the undercover Billy who engages with the neighbors. There’s the writer Billy, the one putting his ever-so-slightly-altered life story on the page. And there’s the interior Billy, the one whose thoughts are what we the readers are engaged by.

Which of them is the real Billy? Are any of them?

People are too quick to throw around labels like “antihero” – I can see how someone might paste that one on Billy Summers, but I think it’s more nuanced than that. This is a complex and troubled man operating in a world of moral and ethical ambiguity; we’re rooting for him, yet slightly uneasy about that fact. Is he the good guy? Or simply the lesser evil? That grayness is shot through the entirety of the book – and the book is better for it.

It’s also worth noting that this novel was completed during the early stages of the pandemic; while it isn’t a pandemic novel per se, it’s clear that its themes of isolation and man’s inhumanity to man were certainly influenced by the events of 2020’s spring. There are a few oblique references scattered here and there, but it’s mostly a tonal thing; the entire world was impacted, so it’s no surprise that King was as well.

As has been the case in much of King’s more pulp-oriented fare, the supernatural stuff is kept to a minimum. In fact, other than a handful of allusions to the Overlook Hotel, late of King’s masterpiece “The Shining,” there’s not really any. This is a story about the evil that men do, without any help from outside forces.

“Billy Summers” is a lot of things. It’s a compelling story of moral ambiguity. It’s a rip-roaring shoot-em-up in some spots, a thoughtful meditation on identity in others. It’s a story about not just a writer, but the act of writing – how difficult it can be to do … and how cathartic. All of it built around one hell of a fascinating titular character. Once more, I beat the drum – Stephen King is the greatest storyteller in modern American letters, one who remains firmly ensconced in the strongest late-career surge in the history of popular fiction.

Last modified on Tuesday, 03 August 2021 07:31

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