Reading Billy Summers is like coming home. Stephen King's style in this book is so familiar and comfortable. His main character is your generic lone hero with a difficult life backstory; maybe he did something bad, but he's essentially a good guy.
Yet it's not predicable. Where King takes these characters is always interesting. Billy Summers comes with complications, because he works for bad guys. And he kills bad guys. Who is who, and who can Billy trust?
There's a distinct air of unease in this story of a gunman's fated 'last job'. Is it jinxed, like in the movies?
Hired by the mob to take out a murderer who knows too much, Billy's not sure if he can trust the bad guys he works for: they have too much control over the setup for this hit, and are even trying to control his getaway - a flawless disappearing act that he's known for.
It all feels a bit 'wonky':
Dutching is what movie people call that kind of tilt, and that's how this job feels: dutched.
The character of Billy has a complex number of identities. He's a bit like a Russian Doll. He uses his sniper's persona to accept the job: what he calls his dumb self - a guy that has a gift for shooting, but isn't clever like Billy really is. 'Dumb Billy' reads Archie comics. Real Billy reads Emile Zola.
There's David Lockridge, a writer persona created for him while he is 'embedded' waiting for his mark: insinuating himself into small town life in Red Bluff; while his story is written under the pseudonym Billy Compson.
As if four aren't enough, there's his escape persona, Dalton Smith. One the gangsters know nothing about. Billy's pretty sure they've cloned his laptop, and are watching his movements in the house they've rented for his stay. So Billy has a backup ID, wig, false paunch, car and another apartment up his sleeve. With witnesses who have spent time with him.
The Dalton Smith disguise, with the blonde wig, moustache and fake belly makes me think of Billy Halleck, from the Bachman book, Thinner. Having so many identities is wearing thin:
As he walks, plods back to the parking garage, Billy is thinking about bigamy. He's never been married once, let alone to two different women at the same time. but now he knows how that must feel. In a word, exhausting. He's getting his feet in not just two different lives but three.
Turns out Billy has been shooting bad guys since he was knee-high to one. His Mom 'gave a ride to a scorpion', one Bob Raines, who killed Billy's sister. When he came for Billy, he ended up dead.
The story is what you carry and every time you add to it, it gets heavier.
Billy Summers is a wee bit like a Stephen King Masterclass. Through Billy's author persona he explores the writing process: a feel good, cathartic practice; getting his demons out.
Billy's cover as a writer is a hoot because he decides to write from his 'dumb self', (because the bad guys might be monitoring his progress) but the story is his own. He begins with his difficult upbringing, then skirts around his time as a marine 'in the suck' in Fallujah, which he feels he can't address until the job is done.
He hasn't written anything beyond that first episode, but the rest is right there. Waiting. ...It's not like journaling, it's not an effort to make peace with a life that has in many ways been unhappy and traumatic, it's not confessional even though it may amount to a confession. It's about power. He's finally tapped into power that doesn't come from the barrel of a gun.
Billy-the-writer demonstrates how Stephen King-the-writer changes names ever so slightly from the originals. King mentions some of his favourite books and authors on this ride, including Zola's Thérèse Raquin - a novel of violence, lust and revenge - and The Things They Carried - described by Billy as the penultimate war story.
Billy falls in love with writing, finding it both cathartic and addictive. But as the hit looms, he experiences writers block.
The real poison is the gun. This thing is getting close.
Will Billy get so immersed in his 'front' that he will lose focus on the task ahead?
Stephen King's stories are a love song to small-town America, with its changes of seasons, unique and lovable characters and communities: ones I see reflected in New Zealand.
This one's set in a small city called Red Bluff, with a suburb named Midwood. There's a tower with an old sign outside it advertising business apartments: OFFICE SPACE AND LUXURY APARTMENTS NOW AVAILABLE. Remind you of anywhere, dear reader? Spooky.
SK's later books are bringing in elements from all the others, as if all worlds are indeed connected. Midwood sounds an awful lot to me like Mid-World, from the Dark Tower series, while that sign is surely a reflection of the sign for Turtle Bay Luxury Condominiums.
Human nature is perhaps the same the world over. King should know. He's a master of characterisation, having spent a lifetime studying people. The characters in Billy Summers grow on you in spite of Billy/David needing to keep them at arms length. They're downright friendly.
So friendly, in fact, that Billy begins not to care about the prize in this 'dutched' hit. He's still focused on the job, but wishes he hadn't taken it and could lead a normal life - that of a good neighbour, friend, maybe lover. But the conceit that he's a good guy who only kills bad guys wouldn't wash.
He has become important to them, and he's going to let them down. He doesn't believe (or can't, or refuses to) that he is actually going to break their hearts when he kills Joel Allen, but he knows they will be shocked and shaken. Disillusioned. Dutched. ...This is not how a good person behaves.
I really related to 'Dave's' lawn revival, while the repeated motif of Billy lying on his back with his hands behind his head in the cool spot under the pillow made him real, mulling on his thoughts at the end of the day.
...in a world where a conman can get elected president anything is possible.
SK keeps it real with one last word on the Trump administration: his characters are firmly split into pro-Don and anti-Don factions. Is the 'what if' springboard for this story an extension of the premise that created the brilliant 11:22:63?
If you dig deep enough into SK's worlds, you might remember another bad politician and an assassination attempt in The Dead Zone - one of the first of his books I read as a teen, and right up there with the best.
Nikolai Majarian is Billy's handler. Careful to keep from being seen in Red Bluff, he brings Billy to his rented house for meetings about the hit:
It's the McMansion Billy was expecting...a cobbled-together horror-show on what looks like two acres of lawn...There is indeed a cherub peeing endlessly into a pool of water...The house is (also) lit, the better to show off its wretched excess. To Billy it looks like the bastard child of a supermarket and a mega-church. This isn't a house, its the architectural equivalent of red golf pants.
Does Nick see him as a loose end, like Ken Hoff, who is obviously being set up as the patsy, 'a grande figlio di puttana'.
What will Billy do after the shooting goes down? Not trusting Nick, he will have to go to ground. Will he be able to face Fallujah and finish his book? Will he have to fight his way out of the hole? Or will he go after the bad guy behind this disastrous last job?
There is so much more to this book. The story-within-the-story provides another dimension, one I wanted to hear more about.
"He's been doing this job for over three months, and at far greater personal cost than he ever would have believed. He was promised, and who breaks his promise? 'Bad people, that's who...' "