How do we know whether an individual is a good person or a bad person? Children like my five-year-old grandson know that there are heroes and villains — interestingly, he chooses to be the villain in his fantasy play. But we adults know that there is more to “goodness” than a superficial title. And in “Billy Summers,” Stephen King forces us to consider whether a hired killer can be a good person or must always be a villain by virtue of his profession.
Let me just begin by saying it’s been a while since I’ve read a Stephen King novel. I still remember, with clarity, some of the stories I read forty years ago from his collection of short stories called “Night Shift.” I still remember the stories about the 18-wheeler trucks and the one about closets. I loved his horror stories, “Christine,” “Thinner,” “Pet Cemetery,” “Cujo,” “The Shining,” I read them voraciously. But then I stopped reading horror stories. I got married and had children, and I didn’t want to be scared anymore. So when I realized that his new novel, “Billy Summers,” wasn’t a horror story, I couldn’t wait to read it.
To say I wasn’t disappointed might just be the understatement of the century. In fact, just writing the review of it is a humbling task as I know there is no way I will be able to do the book justice. “Billy Summers” is a magnificent work, and it’s thoughtful, engrossing, and touching. King doesn’t spare us his rapier wit and his cynical view of the depths to which humans can plunge. But at the same time, he introduces us to Billy Summers, a veteran who escaped a childhood of horror to end up in Fallujah in a different kind of horror story. Billy Summers returns to the U.S. to become a hired killer. But he only kills bad guys. That’s the rule.
Does that make him not-so-much a bad guy? Or does the fact that he truly likes people and can be a good friend? That he wants to help good people and entertains children? That he has a soft spot in his heart and truly doesn’t like killing? What makes a person bad, and what might redeem a person who does bad things? Billy “has no problem with bad people paying to have other bad people killed. He basically sees himself as a garbageman with a gun.” Do we have a problem with that?
Billy Summers is hired to kill a man who qualifies as a bad guy. He is being extradited from California back to the southern death-penalty state where Billy will be waiting. The Vegas mobster who has hired Billy in the past, Nick, has rented Billy a house in the suburbs and rented him an office in a building overlooking the courthouse. Billy just needs to play the part of a would-be author and be prepared to kill the killer when he’s brought to trial. And during the months-long wait, we really get to know Billy.
We see him interact with his neighbors and play with their children. For someone who has never had kids of his own, much less been married, he’s a natural. He’s respected by his neighbors and liked by the workers in the office building. They have no idea who he really is—but then neither do we, really. Is Billy the stone-cold killer waiting to do the killing, or is he a genuinely nice guy who barbecues for his neighbors and beats their kids at Monopoly?
In addition to Billy’s multiple faces, King makes Billy even more multi-faceted by having the “killer” Billy act slow and kind of dumb, while we know from reading King’s third person narrative from Billy’s point of view that Billy is extremely well read, very literate, and very, very intelligent. So when Billy takes advantage of his cover as an author by really writing his life story, we are privy to his heartbreaking childhood and his just as heartbreaking time in Iraq. We get to know Billy, and we really like him. We also are privy to what might just be some of King’s thoughts about writing as Billy shares his internal dialogue about his own writing. Is he writing for himself, or does he hope that someday others will read what he wrote? He ponders how that difference will affect his writing and what he includes.
After the killing, which occurs less than halfway through the novel, the media simply refer to Billy as a Marine veteran of the Iraq war who earned a few medals. They don’t give details about his Bronze Star, Silver Star, and Purple Heart. “He can understand them not wanting to do that particular rundown. He’s the villain of the piece, so why muddle things up with a heroic background? Muddling things up is for novels, not news reports.” King pays homage to “The Shining” when Billy ends up in Colorado at a place that is close to where the Overlook Hotel stood. One character comments, “I’m not a superstitious man, but I wouldn’t go anywhere near where the Overlook Hotel used to stand. Bad stuff happened there.” And there’s something else, almost a little inside joke for those readers who also read (or saw the movie) “The Shining.”
For the rest of the novel, we see Billy traveling the country, determined to get his own kind of justice. What we see during Billy’s travels, from the relationships he’s developed with other important characters to how he treats minor characters who would do him harm, will have us reevaluate what a hero is. We see Billy, a hired killer, who has more moral fiber in his body than some of the most important people in the country.
In spite of the dark nature of many of King’s books, we still get the idea that he likes people. When Billy leaves some equipment unlocked in a trailer overnight, and it’s still there in the morning, he’s not surprised. King writes, “…his experience over the years has taught him that the great majority of people are honest. They don’t take what isn’t theirs.” Yet Billy also has the presence of mind to bring some new equipment into the safety of their hotel room. Perhaps honesty only goes so far.
But the greatest homage to writing is what King shares at the end. Through writing, the world can be reshaped any way we want it. Or rather any way the writer wants it to be. While we are writing, we are living in that world. Not the real world, but the world as we want it to be. And if you substitute “reading” for “writing,” it’s the same story. We know that while we are reading a great book, we are not in the present; we are living vicariously through the pages of the book in our hands. He writes, “Did you know that you could sit in front of a screen or a pad of paper and change the world? It doesn’t last, the world always comes back, but before it does, it’s awesome. It’s everything.”
“Billy Summers” will make you smile and it will break your heart. But it will also make you think about good people and bad people and what makes them so. Can Billy Summers be a good person, a hero, really, if he is also a killer of men? My own alternate proposition is: Can a minister who has a private jet, doesn’t pay taxes, lives in a multi-million dollar mansion be considered a good person? Which person would you trust? I know which I’d pick, and I’d bet money that Stephen King would agree.
Please note: This review is based on the final, hardcover book provided by Scribner, the publisher, for review purposes.