Review: Billy Summers

Billy Summers Billy Summers by Stephen King
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

King delivers a new novel that diverges from his traditional realm of horror and supernatural and into a tale of suspense and crime.  Within that, King also flexes his literary chops in ways that are both familiar and enjoyable.  The story, as King reminds readers throughout, is the typical "last gig" crime story wherein hitman, Billy Summers, is set to do a final kill before disappearing forever.  And just like every other story, this one does not go as planned.  Summers is set up to take out a hitman while pretending to be a writer in a nowhere town but Summers keeps getting the sense that nothing is on the up and up and so plans accordingly to avoid ending up in a ditch.  The tale is a bit of cat and mouse, with Summers sometimes the cat and sometimes the mouse.  It's an enjoyable tale for anyone who likes thrillers or King in general. 

What's interesting is how much meta-fictional ideas are woven into this story.  Billy Summers is not your average hitman (whatever that means) but he presents himself as a hitman who is effective but not particularly intelligent beyond his ability to shoot and kill.  So we have Summer's crafting a fiction about himself. This takes a further twist when Summers lands in town for a few months under another alias (a writer, no less) and must craft a secondary persona who is both him and not him.  That secondary persona begins to actually write while killing time, a fictionalized memoir of Billy, while also creating a third persona who will become Billy's escape plan when things go south. This balancing of different points of view and experiences--of characters within characters, channeling other characters seems like a perfect overlap between how we think of the work that writers do.  And also, the kind of hitman that King creates in this novel, well, it's the kind of hitman that feels like the kind of author that King is.  Summers is a hitman that tries to only kill "bad people" and if we think about King's career, he, too, is often trying to kill bad people throughout so many of his novels.  

One sore spot about this novel is how much King focuses on Trump and the right-wing media machine. I'm a fan of fiction that grapples with political ideas and even specific politics, but it feels too forced in this novel. Throughout most, it isn't too constant but it's there regularly enough, particularly in the final arc of the tale. King seems to want you to know that he isn't a fan of the direction that Trump and right-wing media are going but it doesn't fit particularly well in the way that novel plays out.  It's too bad because it interferes with the more intriguing elements of his writing, though not enough to avoid reading.   

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