Local review: ‘Billy Summers’ is Stephen King’s most bookish thriller yet



As he’s proven time and time again, Stephen King isn’t just a phenomenal writer, he’s a phenomenal writer on writing.

“Misery.” “The brilliant.” “Keepers of the Finder. “The dark half.” “Lisey’s story.” And, of course, “On the writing”. It’s easy to check off examples from his books that deal with the creative process, knowing that there are many more that we forgot to mention.

Write what you know, right? If only it was that easy.

This year, King has already delivered a novel with a strong connection to the world of books. In March’s “Later”, the protagonist’s mother works as a literary agent, her livelihood dependent on the production of a single best-selling author. A frightening situation indeed.

King’s new novel, “Billy Summers,” goes deep into its description of a neophyte learning to create a story. Billy, however, is not a serious young student of creative writing at community college. Rather, he is a safe 44-year-old assassin, even though he only shoots and kills the “wrong” people.

“Billy Summers” opens with the main character waiting for a client while reading “Thérèse Raquin” by Emile Zola, changing the novel to an Archie comic book when potential clients arrive. Billy likes to show off his “dumb self”, leaving those who hire him like he’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. In his profession, being underestimated is often safer than being smart.

“It’s like a seat belt,” he says of himself. “You don’t use it because you expect to be in an accident, but you never know who you might run into when driving over a hill on your side of the road. This is also true on the Road of Life, where people turn all over the place and ride the wrong way on the freeway.

Two underworld associates offer Billy the biggest salary of his sniper career, a small $ 2 million that would allow him to comfortably retire from the murder industry. Even though he knows the dangers of taking on one last big job, Billy accepts the assignment. The idea is to hide in one place and let the target come to him. So Billy crouches in a small town in the Midwest, claiming to be, above all, a freelance writer working on a novel.

As Billy waits, he finds himself strangely satisfied with his new character, making friends with his neighbors and being a part of the community. Without any chance of being published, Billy actually begins to write a novel, disguised in memory, based on his periods of service in Iraq. The more he writes, the better he writes, and soon he finds himself uncovering truths about himself that he had hidden decades ago.

For a book on a hitman, “Billy Summers” advances at a decidedly measured pace. King explains everything Billy is doing to build himself a number of new identities and prepare for the next hit. At various times, readers may wonder why they need another review of a trip to Walmart.

Details are important, however. As far-fetched as the thriller’s plot may be, King wants to anchor it enough in reality that his readers willfully suspend their disbelief when they need to.

Eventually, Billy’s plans come to fruition, but not the way he expects. And “Billy Summers”, the novel takes a sudden and unexpected turn that propels him into new territory.

Talking a lot about the second half of the book is to rob it of some of its ingenuity. A new character joins the cast, almost as dynamic as Billy, and together they make a formidable, if not unlikely, team.

In the middle of the tale is another secret story, Billy’s fictionalized account of his military service. At first, her output reads as if it had been written by her “stupid self”. Little by little, Billy stretches his literary muscles, and King shows how Billy’s mastery of the craft grows over time and offers a new way of seeing the world. As Billy seeks revenge for a betrayal that nearly cost him his life, he is forced to recalibrate his moral compass.

“Billy Summers” is the perfect summer treat – solidly crafted, deliciously suspenseful, and surprisingly heartfelt. King plays with all his might: a deep characterization, a clever plot, and this time an ending that feels both logical and well-deserved. There’s even a hint of the supernatural, as Billy finds himself affected by his proximity to the ruins of the Overlook Hotel, once the domain of another writer’s literary quest.

When he started publishing in the mid-1970s, it was easy to classify King as a genre writer, especially a horror writer. But he quickly began to show his versatility from his first short story collection, “Different Seasons”.

Is there any chance that King himself played the ‘stupid me’ game early on, leaving critics to underestimate his ability to simultaneously appreciate Emil Zola and Archie Andrews?

“Billy Summers” might be King’s most bookish thriller yet, an incisive character study wrapped in a road romance, coupled with a very unconventional love story.

However you want to label it, King’s latest novel squarely hits its mark nine out of 10 times.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and many other publications. He can be contacted at: [email protected]
Twitter: @mlberry

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