Stephen King, Stephen King, Stephen King. After dozens and dozens and dozens of novels, as well as more dozens of short stories, how to contextualize his latest novel, 2021’s Billy Summers, in an intriguing intro? If you’re a Stephen King fan, it’s likely you’re not even reading this; you’ve already read the book. If you’re not a Stephen King fan, how to convince you Billy Summers is worth it—something that pokes out from King’s massive oeuvre and your impressions of it? Guess I have to dive in…
Billy Summers is the story of Dalton Smith, David Lockridge, dumb Billy Summers, and smart Billy Summers—all the same person. Smart Summers is an orphan turned marine sniper. After the Iraq War, he turned his killing talents to the mafia, particularly a Vegas kingpin named Nicky Majerian. To this underworld, smart Summers has played himself off as dumb Summers—a man of limited intelligence capable of cold assassination. At the outset of the novel, Majerian offers him one last job: 2 million to snipe a rat informant in custody. David Lockridge is the persona Majerian and dumb Summers create while preparing the hit. Ostensibly a writer, Lockridge befriends the office workers in the building where they are setting up shot a la Lee Harvey Oswald. Smart Summers constantly wary of how ‘one last job’ can go wrong, he sets up yet another persona, one that Majerian knows nothing about, called Dalton Smith. These multiple guises setting Summers’ head spinning in the days leading up to the hit, his mental stability is no guarantee even if the hit goes off as planned.
Billy Summers is classic Stephen King. The smooth yet irreverent prose. The real people on the page. The meta-fictional games. And the entertaining, enjoyable story at its core. King’s extra-curricular writing and commentary (interviews, twitter, etc.) is often political, and the novel likewise is, at least to a small degree. Summers, the multiple aspects of Summers, and his story are fully under the spotlight. But just behind this façade, and becoming more apparent as Summers’ backstory builds, is the personal backlash of US involvement in Iraq.
Like Vietnam, Korea, and the Gulf wars, soldiers of those experiences now walk the streets of the US still dealing with the after effects. Some better than others, Summers represents the middle ground. While the job title ‘assassin’ is sure not to win Summers any points with Saint Peter at the gates of heaven, his personal coda only allows him to accept hits on ‘bad people’. King spins this in both manipulative fashions (i.e. in-story drama which arises due to Summers’ worldview) and meta-commentary (i.e. the life and times of an Iraq War veteran struggling to fit in.)
Another socio-political element lurking behind the façade is a frustration with the manner in which the rich and powerful abuse their positions of power at the expense of others. Though never directly stated, rich malfeasants like Jeffrey Epstein come to mind encountering characters in the novel. This one, however, is used almost exclusively for drama—doesn’t mean it’s any less real, but in the novel, it makes for good bad guys.
In Billy Summers, readers will find King returning to fertile ground, ground which has yielded a healthy crop in the past. Where Misery contained fiction within fiction, so too does Billy Summers. Smart Summers an avid and conscious reader, he finds himself in an interesting position posing as David Lockridge the writer. In maintaining appearances, at times he needs to sit in front of a computer and write, regardless the result. So why not try his hand at doing something that he has enjoyed from the other side as reader? I will not spoil the results, except to say King, as with Misery, effectively weaves this aspect in and out of the novel, creating a layer of story that helps give the novel a little weight.
In the end, Billy Summers is a self-aware genre novel that explores the space between literary and genre fiction. King playing with meta-fiction in a fashion that simultaneously fills in backstory, the crime/mafia story façade is underpinned by a character study that lends the book humanity. King still pulls a couple stereotypical plot tricks (the book is likewise intended to be a commercial success), but that doesn’t stop the reader from investing themselves in Summers’ story. King’s style smooth and sharp as it ever was, this is the perfect summer read.