“A Garbage Man with a Gun”
The first time Billy Summers killed a man, he was barely twelve. By the time he’s eighteen, he’s a sniper with the Marines in Iraq, where he notches up another two dozen kills. Instead of re-upping, he tries to find work back in the States. One of his former Marine friends asks him to kill someone. Thus begins Billy’s career as an elite hitman. His only condition is that his victims have to be demonstrably bad men. He’s not a sociopath driven to kill — he’s just good with a gun. He can hit targets from an incredible distance and then vanish like Houdini without being identified or caught. Now, at the ripe old age of 44, he’s looking to retire. One last job and he’s done.
Billy knows all about the trope of the last heist going bad. Despite playing dumb around the people who hire him so they’ll underestimate him, he is, in fact, very smart. He might carry around an Archie comic digest as part of his cover, but by night he’s grappling with Thérèse Raquin by Emile Zola. He’s read all the greats — part of his ongoing effort to try to figure out what defines a good person or a bad one.
His final gig is unusually complicated. It brings him to Red Bluff, a moderate-sized city in an unnamed red state just below the Mason-Dixon line, east of the Mississippi. The proposed payment is more than twenty times higher than anything he’s ever made before — which sets off a few alarms in his mind — and he’s going to have to spend a lot of time in Red Bluff. Maybe six weeks. Maybe six months. But his down payment of half a million shows up in his offshore bank account, so he goes along with the ride, all the while wondering: What’s the catch?
His intended target is indeed a very bad man, but he’s currently in California fighting extradition. It’s a delaying tactic. Eventually he’ll lose and be brought back to town. That’s when Billy will do what he does best and then move on to whatever retirement looks like for a former contract assassin. His clients set him up in a fully stocked suburban house, where he befriends the neighbors, and they also provide an interesting cover story to explain why he’s in town for so long.
Stephen King has written several books featuring protagonists who are writers, but most of them are already successful from the outset. Jack Torrance is an exception — he published a few stories but wasn’t a full-time writer. The cover story they’ve dreamed up for Billy is that he’s a rookie writer with an interested publisher, but his agent has to sequester him in Red Bluff; otherwise, Billy (going by the name Dave Lockridge, one of several identities he’ll adopt in this book) likes to drink and carouse and do anything but write. He’s going to spend his days in a rented office (that will ultimately become his shooter’s nest) and grind out his novel. This section of the book reminds me of 11/22/63, when Jake Epping had to pass time in Jodie, Texas waiting for the day of the assassination — only in this case Billy is playing the role of Oswald.
The thing is, Billy has always wanted to write — he’s just never gotten around to it. So he embraces this rather strange situation he finds himself in and begins to write his life story, starting with killing the man who murdered his nine-year-old sister. Because he’s pretty sure the computer his clients supplied is bugged, Billy writes in the voice of his “dumb self,” which is perfectly suited to a story told from the point of view of an adolescent boy. Eventually he gets to write in his own voice, recounting his years in foster care, basic training and, later, Iraq. Large sections of his manuscript are reproduced in the novel.
One aspect of Billy Summers explores the zen of writing — how turning his mind toward incidents from the distant past allows Billy to remember things with remarkable clarity. However, he discovers that fiction isn’t necessarily the truth by itself — it’s the way to the truth. It’s also a kind of war, “one you fight with yourself,” and it gets heavier every time he adds to it. Ultimately, he and his “first reader” come to realize that you can sit in front of a computer screen and change the world.
People familiar with the promotional synopsis of the novel might wonder if the entire plot is going to focus on the build-up to the day Billy gets the call saying his target is back in town. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and one of the book’s great pleasures is the fact that it veers off in a completely unexpected direction after a couple of hundred pages. Although he is forced to act for self-preservation, Billy does something heroic. Is it enough to tip his moral scales from bad to good? That will be for readers to decide. I don’t want to say too much about this particular plot development to avoid ruining the thrill of discovery.
Watch King read from Billy Summers
However, I will say this: I’ve often talked about how King’s characters are what attract me to his books more than anything else. Sure, the plots are terrific, but what makes the stories memorable are the characters. One thing I especially enjoy is watching his characters become friends. In many King books, two (or more) characters from completely different worlds are thrust together by circumstance and discover they like each other. Take Jerome Wireman and Edgar Freemantle in Dumas Key, for example. It is a delight to observe them becoming friends. Something similar happens in Billy Summers — two vastly different people with almost nothing in common develop an intense bond over the course of several weeks together. It’s charming, and a testament to King’s skill.
Ultimately, Billy Summers becomes a revenge tale — multiple incidents of revenge, in fact, as Billy works his way up the ladder to the man who was literally calling the shots. Billy has a strong desire to avenge his new friend, but then he wants to get what’s owed him. It’s not about the money — not totally, at least — it’s about broken promises and double-dealing. As he and his new companion drive back and forth across the country, he passes through or visits locations that will be familiar to long-time King readers: Las Vegas, Boulder, Estes Park, Nederland, Hemingford Home, Montauk Point and Sidewinder.
Along the way, King has his well-read protagonist drop numerous literary references, including Billy’s favorite author, Thomas Hardy, as well as Faulkner, James M. Cain, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan, Tim O’Brien, Joseph Campbell, Daniel Keyes and John Howard Griffin, along with poets like Henry Reed and Wordsworth.
Billy Summers is a straight crime novel (told in the present tense), with nary a vampire or phantom to be found. Except, perhaps, for a ghostly cameo by an infamous haunted resort and its creepy lawn ornaments. A lot of the book is set in conservative locations, which gives King a chance — through Billy — to make a few observations about recent politics, although this isn’t a major aspect of the novel.
Are there nineteens? Yes, indeed. Sharp-eyed readers will catch any number of direct and computational representations of that totemic number. There’s also a fleeting appearance by a Ford Pinto, and Billy reveals that his mother worked in a commercial laundry, running “the mangle.”
I don’t often say this but, after reading the novel twice, I can’t wait for it to be adapted as a movie. I rarely imagine actors playing certain roles, but I definitely have someone in mind for Billy’s new friend.