Five decades into an almost singularly successful career, Stephen King goes in an intriguing new direction with Billy Summers. Though this novel includes many classic King touchstones—revenge, a writer hero, unlikely friendships, trauma, justice—its dedication to realism and intense, almost meditative focus on the titular main character make it a standout among his works.
As the novel opens, 44-year-old military sniper-turned-assassin Billy Summers is reluctantly agreeing to take on one last job. Though he only kills bad people (he considers himself “a garbageman with a gun”), Billy is tired of the isolation and violence his chosen career entails, as well as of the dull, incurious persona he puts on to deflect the attention of the dangerous people who hire him. The payday for this final assignment is astronomical, and the target undeniably deserves his fate, but what really convinces Billy to take on the job is the cover: He’ll have to pose as a writer who’s renting space in an office building to complete his first novel.
The criminals who hired Billy find this cover story to be ironic due to Billy’s “dumb self” mask, but Billy, who secretly reveres Émile Zola and Tim O’Brien, is attracted to the idea of putting his own story on paper. As Billy begins to write about his traumatic childhood, his cover becomes increasingly real to him. But even as he sinks into his identity as “Dave,” the guileless would-be great American novelist who beats the pants off his neighbors at Monopoly and grabs drinks with a woman who works in his office building, he begins to sense that there’s more to this job than he’s being told. And of course, the hit is only the beginning of the action.
The poignant beats in this early portion of Billy Summers will be familiar to readers of 11/23/63, which also features a main character with a hidden mission who becomes a part of a community even as he deceives the people around him. But given that this novel is about a hit man, the violence kicks in quickly and continues through most of the book. King’s trademark skill with suspense and action is on display in several thrilling set pieces, including the breathlessly paced original hit, but this novel also stretches his literary ambitions. Much of Billy’s autofiction appears on the page in a book within a book that gives readers a deeper understanding of its main character. And while Billy shifts between personas and dons physical disguises with aplomb, his internal self comes more clearly into focus as he writes about his experiences and interrogates the stories he’s been telling himself about his past—and about himself. Billy might kill only bad people, but he’s still a killer. Can a person who ends the lives of others ever be considered good?
Misery, The Dark Half, Lisey’s Story and The Shining all feature writers as characters, but their craft was either incidental or corrosive. In Billy Summers, the art of creating fiction is portrayed as an empowering force. By taking control of our stories, King suggests, we can begin to heal, find hope and even discover a truth that is more profound than reality. These resonant ideas provide a somber counterpoint to the action in this contemplative thriller.