By Adam Norris
There has been no other influence so profound on my writing and reading than Stephen King, and given the man’s sales figures, I am one of legion. Not that I’m much of a horror writer, but King’s grasp of story has no modern equal. He’s often compared to Dickens, which is a pretty fair parallel; both were hugely popular storytellers and stylists in their lifetimes and will likely still be read far into the future. Sure, not every King book is going to stand the test of time – Dreamcatcher, Cell, The Tommyknockers, all bestsellers that are bestforgotten – but when you’ve published over sixty books, well, there’s bound to be some foul balls.
‘Billy Summers’ is vintage late-game King. Ever since the 1999 accident that almost killed him, King has waltzed between a variety of genres. He has never been exclusively drawn to the supernatural – just think of ‘Rita Hayward & the Shawshank Redemption’, or
‘Dolores Claiborne’ – but his forays away from the crypt have become more assured. Billy Summers is a crime story, and while the tone here is reminiscent of the time-travelling 2011 release ‘11/22/63’ (which is itself in the King Top 10) and the genre reminiscent of the ‘Bill Hodges Trilogy’, this is very much a real-world novel. It contains no monsters (save for the ordinary human variety, that is), yet is as absorbing, inventive, and as well-written as his classic fare.
King is a master of character, and his central cast here – Billy, his friend Bucky, and assault-survivor Alice – are some of the most outstanding creations of his late career. After a harrowing experience as a sniper in the Iraq war (with bonus points there for the depth of King’s research), Billy turns his talents to murder for hire – though only if the target deserves it. His reputation is built on his ability to disappear after a hit, and his latest job could set him up for life.
The trope is old – the fabled one-last-gig-and-I’m-out – but King reconciles this early on.
The details of how the job spirals into something more desperate are compelling, but the beating, memorable heart of this is how much we empathise and, ultimately, care for Billy and his circumstances. Publicity for the novel describes it as part war story, part love letter to small-town America, and this is true. But it is largely a story of memory and friendship, of how broken things are made whole again. It can be violent, and it can be cruel; it is also full of hope.
And OK, I lied; there is the tiniest flicker of the supernatural – a fleeting suggestion of something from one of his most famous books – but on the whole, King plays this one straight. And by God, he plays it well.