Reviewed by Ian Lipke
In this remarkable book, we find that several stories are each amalgamated seamlessly into the main or primary tale. Billy Summers is a returned soldier from the war in Afghanistan where he served as a sniper. He gives the impression that he is a little mentally deficient, but makes clear to those he trusts that he can think with clarity and precision. His persona fools the criminal gang who offer him two million dollars to kill a prisoner who is due to be arraigned.
The strength of the book lies not so much in the unfolding events but in the characters who inhabit it. Apart from the usual ‘bully-boys’, the gang is led, ostensibly, by Nick Majarian. He is a night club owner and hides his cruelty behind the bonhomie of a popular man about town. He is not the leader, however, and the revelation of the identity of the master criminal is withheld until the close of the story. As the book develops, the tale becomes infected with the insidious evil of this hidden character. When revealed, his crimes are black and horrible. The involvement of this character, to all intents invisible, forms the basis for yet another sub-story of this book.
A third story is told by Billy when he decides to entertain the fiction that he has the ability to write. He writes a record of his exploits in Afghanistan. Surprising to me was the quality of Billy’s prose, an unlikely ability in a man unused to writing creative, continuous passages. No story is complete without a heroine. This one, Alice Maxwell, is developed so subtly that we breathe with her, suffer her pain and thrill to her joys. While in hiding from the criminals who want him dead, Billy rescues Alice who, raped and bleeding, was dumped at the side of a suburban street. The love that grows between them is a fourth story cleverly interwoven with the others.
Billy Summers is one of Stephen King’s great creations. Growing up in poverty on a farm, he elects to escape by joining the Marines, where his native ability to shoot straight earns him automatic entry into the sniper division. His prowess is demonstrated when, challenged by an officer to take out an enemy chief at an impossible distance from the Marine Corps own location, he does so. This appears to be Billy’s only overt skill, but the story reveals he has many others, well hidden.
Billy carries with him a sense of guilt which arises from a time when he shot his brother-in-law who was beating his sister, “crushing his sister’s fragile chest”. Billy’s lack of education is revealed by King’s use of the continuous present, a simple device but more than sufficient to fix an image of Billy that is distinct from any other character. “If that gun of his hadn’t been loaded, I would be dead but I knew it was because he kept it loaded in case of what he called burg-gurg-gurglers…he bust in the door like I was pretty sure he would…he said give that to me you useless piece of shit don’t you know kids ain’t supposed to play with guns. Then I shot him, dead centre mass…I saw the blood fly out of his back… He was a bad guy” (53)!
In understanding Billy Summers, we must note that only the bad guys are of interest. The pivotal point is his agreement to shoot the prisoner, and he does so only because he was a bad guy. This is Billy’s only criterion. “Bad people need to pay a price” (253)! This is the reason he gives for assassinating the prisoner, for hunting down Alice’s attackers, and for his pursuit of Nick and his gang. By refusing to pay the agreed price for the assassination, Nick became a bad guy and could not be left unpunished.
Another character in this book is Billy’s friend, Bucky. Having assisted in the escape from the criminals’ net, Bucky disappears into the wilds of the mountains. This environment, rugged and solitary and lonely, is all there is in the life of a fugitive. When Billy and Alice join him, Bucky is much taken with Alice and warns Billy not to involve Alice in a life of crime. “You know, a baby kitten will take to a dog that decides to groom it instead of chasing or eating it. Hell, a baby duck will. They imprint. She’s imprinted on you Billy and I don’t want her to get hurt.” (316).
However, Alice has her own views. She is a woman in love and mounts a stiff opposition to Billy’s plans to face the master criminal. However, Billy’s fate is decided by an almost forgotten source and Alice is freed of the temptation into a life of jeopardy.
This book will stand as much more subtle and much more engaging than King’s recent works. Billy Summers stands comparison with the unforgettable It, though written in a genre vastly different from the earlier work. King’s latest publication is a magnificent representative of the mature writer.
by Stephen King
Hodder & Stoughton/Hachette U. K.
$32.99; 448 pp