Have you ever traveled down a river and just let the current carry you? If not, then have you ever tried something like a lazy river ride at a water park? There’s something peaceful about just sitting back and letting the current take you downriver. You aren’t in a rush to get to your destination so you’re able to bask in the beauty of your surroundings.
If there was a literary equivalent to the scene I’ve described, then Stephen King’s newest book would be it.
Billy Summers isn’t your normal King novel. At least, it’s not the typical story you’re expecting out of the King of Thrillers/Chillers/Craziness. For lifelong King fans, Billy Summers is an outlier, a fluke, a blink and you’ll miss it type of novel. There’s a reason for that.
It’s a completely normal work of fiction. Inside this 515 page big boy of a novel, you’ll not find one killer car, killer clown, killer dog, killer pandemic, killer… you get the idea. There’s a whiff of a reference to his classic ghost story The Shining, but that’s it. If there’s a reference to his Magnum opus, The Dark Tower series, it’s barely noticeable
It shouldn’t be surprising though. King has been winding down the level of paranormal craziness in his novels since Roland ascended the Dark Tower. I know some diehard fans won’t like Billy Summers because of that fact, but writing isn’t about telling the stories your #1 fans like. Writing is about telling the stories you want to tell. And just like Paul Sheldon, retiring hitman Billy Summers spends most of the novel telling his own story.
Unlike Paul Sheldon, Summers doesn’t spend most of the novel in misery.
Billy is a professional assassin that’s getting ready to retire. Before he does, he’s contacted by Bucky, his agent and only person he trusts, about a job that pays $2 million. To Billy, the job sounds too good to be true.
And it is, but that part comes later. His employer sets Billy up with a fake identity complete with a home in a neighborhood and an office where he goes to work each day. This is to build cover of course because the guy that Billy has to kill is fighting extradition. The office is conveniently across the street from the courthouse where the mark will undoubtedly appear. While he is waiting to take the shot, Billy gets to know his neighbors and socialize with the other building tenets. He forms relationships with them which he normally would not do in any other job.
His cover story, his reason to go into the office every day, is that he’s writing a book.
For those that read a lot of King, this is familiar ground. A lot of King’s characters are writers. I don’t believe any of them are professional hitmen so that’s new territory, I suppose. To be fair, most of them end up going crazy and killing someone so there’s some kind of connection. Maybe there’s a connection with writing and murder.
Billy decides to write an autobiography of how he became a sniper in the Marines and about his time in Afghanistan and then as an assassin. You actually get to read segments from the autobiography so it’s sort of a book within a book. If this had been a story with lots of action and cliffhangers at the end of every chapter, I would see Billy’s book as a distraction. With this being a lazy river type of tale, I found Billy’s backstory and life as a Marine sniper almost essential to the overall narrative. As the two stories run alongside each other, King makes sure to have Billy draw parallels between them. As the past catches up to the present, King beautifully interweaves the two into an emotional conclusion.
If you haven’t realized, this isn’t an action driven narrative. It relies on two main characters, Billy and Alice, and very few essential side characters. There are about important action scenes but don’t last long. The lulls between action scenes are dedicated to Billy and the characters around him. During his time before the hit, Billy gets to know his neighbors and even play Monopoly with the neighborhood children.
About halfway through the book, Alice is rescued by Billy after a traumatic event. At this point in the story, Billy is staying under the law enforcement’s radar. For the rest of the narrative, the two form a bond and you see how Alice becomes stronger through her friendship with Billy.
There’s really one thing that I had a problem with and it’s looking like it’s going to be a standard Kingism. It’s the constant jabs at former President Donald Trump. If you couldn’t tell from King’s Twitter account, the guy is definitely not a supporter. And it’s starting to show in his novels. It began a few books ago, The Institute was the first one I noticed, but whenever he gets a chance King makes sure to let his Democrat flag fly. Which, it’s his book so he can write whatever he wants, but it took me out of the narrative for a second or two. It would be one thing if it impacted the story, but if you took the political commentary out, it wouldn’t change a thing. It’s understandable why he included it because he was writing it in 2019, but it should’ve been reconsidered during the editing process.
Overall, King writes an emotionally driven character novel about survivors, redemption, heroes and villains. It’s not one that readers have to consume in one sitting, but can be read at one’s leisure. For those that enjoy King, this is a novel that may or may not be liked since it’s outside of King’s normal body of work. For those that have never read King because of that body of work, this is a way for them to test him out.
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