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BOOK REVIEW: Billy Summers

The king of horror and supernatural haunting, Stephen King, hasn’t forgotten his fan base — there’s a nod in his new book to The Shining’s creepy Overlook Hotel — but in Billy Summers, King’s latest, he takes readers on a different kind of thriller ride in what some are saying is his best book yet. It may also be his most moving, getting us to care deeply about a professional killer.

And maybe his most surprising novel as well, with a narrative arc that includes a lot of seemingly unrelated subplots — the mob’s way of doing business, marines in Fallujah fighting house to house in late 2004, friendship between old comrades in crime, a platonic love story between the protagonist and a young woman who’s been gang raped, a nail-biting climax in Montauk — and discovery of the challenges and joys of writing. It’s an eclectic mix but it all comes together.

From the very first paragraph of this over 500-page suspense tale of a contract killing and its consequences, you know you’re in the hands of an award-winning pro and increasingly under the spell of the protagonist, 44-year-old former marine — Bronze Star, Silver Star, Purple Heart sniper Billy Summers.

Billy’s in a hotel lobby reading “a digest-sized comic book, Archie’s Pals and Gals,” but “he’s thinking about Emile Zola and Zola’s third novel, his breakthrough, Therese Raquin.” Not your usual hired gun. Or average neighborhood Joe, though Billy contrives to let others think so — the mob bosses who pay him to kill and the ordinary folk he moves near, as a cover, feigning identity. That way, he gets to carry out what he says will be his last job, though unbeknownst to the mob bosses, the getaway part will be of his devising, not theirs.

The mob puts him up in a middle-class working community where Billy gets known as the affable David Lockridge, an aspiring writer, working on a memoir. But he’s also secretly holing up under another alias, Dalton Smith, in a solitary basement apartment not far away. As Dalton, he passes himself off in disguise as an overweight computer guy. It’s in that apartment, one night, that he hears a noise, which turns out to be three guys dumping a girl’s inert body onto the ground and speeding away. Billy’s instinct is to save her.

The many-layered narrative, typical of King, is made manageable here by a changing typeface, as the reader follows Billy as the dim-bulb Dave Lockridge, trying to write a slightly fictionalized memoir. He does so in the voice of William Faulkner’s slow-witted Benji Compton from The Sound and the Fury. His tale is of a lonely child of an alcoholic mother with a penchant for abusive men, one of whom, one day, beat up and killed Benji’s little sister and started to go after him. But the 10-year-old knew where a gun was and used it. As Billy writes his story, however, waiting out his assassination orders, he feels increasingly competent as a writer and Benji becomes Billy. Billy, who after he shot the man who killed his sister, moved to a foster home and then joined the Marines. And eventually became a hired gun.

As he writes as Billy, waiting for his kill date, he reviews his escape plans. And reassesses his rationale that as a hired gun he’s been killing only really bad people. The seductive draw of writing fiction though gives him a power and a sense of release he never had — that he can own his own story. He sees that while nonfiction presents facts, fiction can present truths.

Billy Summers — such an innocuous title! But the story IS noir, with no shortage of nerve-grating violence. It’s also, however, redemptive, more Faulkner than Zola, more hard-won hope than deterministic despair. It’s 73-year-old Stephen King celebrating the writing life.

Joan Baum is a recovering academic from the City University of New York, who spent 25 years teaching literature and writing. She covers all areas of cultural history but particularly enjoys books at the nexus of the humanities and the sciences.