“Billy Summers,” by Stephen King (Scribner)
Among the many remarkable things about Stephen King is that he has yet to run out of ideas. Or put another way: He’s very good at finding new ways to explore themes that have interested him his entire career.
“Billy Summers” tells the story of the title character — his past and his present. A sniper in the Iraq war, now an assassin for hire, Billy displays a “dumb self” to his clients while inside he’s very curious and introspective, having “even plowed his way through ‘Infinite Jest.’” So when he takes one last job that requires him to have a long-term cover story, he chooses writer. In what other profession could he keep such weird hours and be responsible to no one but his creative muse, right?
The passages where Billy writes his life story are some of the best in the book. King’s adept at shifting voices, from the “dumb self” narrative voice Billy uses in his story, to the killer whose brain never stops wondering who’s trying to manipulate him. “Billy saves what he’s written, gets up, and staggers a little because his feet feel like they’re in another dimension,” writes King. “He feels like a man emerging from a vivid dream.” It’s not hard to imagine King himself somewhere in Maine doing the same decades ago after bringing a chapter of “The Stand” to life.
Redemption is the novel’s central theme. Billy has always told himself he only kills bad men who deserve it, but when he starts having doubts about his final job, he distracts himself by writing his life story.
It’s when he finds an audience for his story that the book really starts to find its groove. Before that, it’s heavy on inner monologue as Billy thinks through all the possible consequences of his actions and the motivations of the people around him. The plot is straightforward and not really very compelling until about the midway point, when Alice Maxwell enters the story. A victim of gang rape, she’s dropped out of a slowly rolling car around midnight outside the apartment where Billy is lying low. Her story reveals a compassionate side to Billy and flips a switch in the narrative. She gives him a new purpose as an avenging hitman while serving as an eager audience for Billy’s life story.
The action kicks into a higher gear as Billy and Alice head west to tie up loose ends. There’s even a cameo from a certain hotel landscaped with animal topiary. It’s just one of those “King-winks” for fans. And those fans will happily ride along with Billy and Alice. For readers who are new to the King canon, there are literally dozens of other books — most of them are also movies or TV shows at this point — with which you’re better off beginning your Stephen King journey.
Rob Merrill, The Canadian Press