There’s nary a supernatural horror in sight in Stephen King’s latest novel, Billy Summers. No shape-shifting evil clowns, no possessed Plymouths, paintings or pets.
That’s not to say there are no monsters. It’s just that they’re the human variety, and there are plenty of those.
The title character is a middle-aged hitman. He’s prided himself, through a career lasting a couple of decades, on only accepting jobs when the target is a very bad person: “He basically sees himself as a garbageman with a gun.”
Billy is 44 and figures now might be a good time to retire from a high-risk profession. But he’s tempted by one last job offer with a $2 million paycheck — even though he’s seen enough noir movies to know “one last job” is a cliche that ends badly.
Billy has worked before with the go-between who hires him, a Las Vegas mobster named Nick Majarian. The target, Nick tells him, is also a hitman, but one who has gone off the rails and been arrested for assault after propositioning a feminist writer he mistook for a hooker. She pepper-sprayed him, and now Joel Allen is sitting in the Los Angeles jail.
Billy and Nick don’t meet in Las Vegas to discuss the job, but in a fictional small city that “sits east of the Mississippi and just below the Mason-Dixon line.” More to the point, it’s a city where Joel Allen is wanted for shooting two men, one of them fatally, not on assignment but after losing big in a poker game — and it’s in a death penalty state, where a hitman looking at execution might make a deal and spill some secrets about his employers.
Nick declines to identify the person who wants Allen killed, but he has an elaborate plan for Billy to move to the city and await Allen’s extradition from California, then shoot him on the courthouse steps. The plan is a bit too elaborate, but Billy goes with it, moving into the house Nick has rented for him in a suburban family neighborhood and into the rented office downtown with a clear view of the courthouse.
He’s both tempted by and worried about the cover identity Nick and his pal, Giorgio Piglielli, have created for him: a writer named David Lockridge, who’s trying to finish a book on deadline and has moved to a place where he knows no one to avoid distraction.
Billy is more than familiar with creating characters — he’s played one throughout his career. Nick and his other criminal connections only know what Billy thinks of as his “dumb self,” a guy who’s a talented sniper but otherwise not very sharp. He’s cultivated that dumb self carefully, all the while indulging his voracious reading habit. In front of Nick and his goons, Billy reads Archie’s Pals ‘n’ Gals, but when he’s on his own he reads Emile Zola and Thomas Hardy and William Faulkner and Joseph Campbell and “even plows through Infinite Jest.”
The cover identity, he thinks, is “Too close to home, far too close. He’s a reader, that’s for sure. And he sometimes dreams of writing....”
Billy is suspicious enough of the setup to rent his own bolthole in another part of town and create yet another cover identity, a computer technician named Dalton Smith. While he’s waiting, he begins to write. He has, after all, a killer first line: “The man my ma lived with came home with a broken arm.”
What pours into Billy’s laptop is not the story of his dumb self but of the real Billy Summers. He writes with riveting immediacy of that man with the cast, who was the first man Billy killed, and of his teen years in foster care that led to his joining the U.S. Marines at 17, learning his sniper skills and serving during the Iraq War in its most deadly days.
King weaves Billy’s novel into this one, first a few paragraphs, then pages and chapters, and it’s a hell of a story.
While he’s writing and waiting, Billy also makes friends in that suburban neighborhood — something he normally guards against. But he indulges himself, hosting barbecues and beating the neighborhood kids ruthlessly at Monopoly.
The hit on Joel Allen happens fairly early in the novel. What happens afterward is that Billy, safe in Dalton’s basement apartment while he waits for things to cool down, looks out his narrow window late at night and sees several men in a van dump a barely conscious young woman onto the street in a freezing rainstorm.
Billy’s rescue of Alice Maxwell puts him at high risk. Has all that neighborhood camaraderie made him soft? Or is the book he’s writing reminding him of who else he could have been?
Their complicated relationship pivots the plot in surprising directions, including a road trip that crisscrosses the country. Billy and Alice don’t come to Florida, but King, who lives in Casey Key part of the year, gives the area a shoutout when a coded message from Billy’s trusted handler hinges on a YouTube video of Southern Culture on the Skids performing at Skipper’s Smokehouse in Tampa.
King slows the book down a bit as Alice and Billy recover and try to figure each other out, but then he cranks it back into high gear as they set out on a mission of vengeance against a genuine monster.
There is one little reference to the supernatural in Billy Summers. Midway through the book, writing in a remote cabin high in the Colorado Rockies, Billy can see across the valley to the site of a haunted hotel that burned down, a hotel where another writer lived. Hanging in the cabin is a painting of topiary animals, which seem to move around when he’s not looking.
Billy turns the painting to the wall and writes on.
By Stephen King
Scribner, 517 pages, $30