Billy Summers by Stephen King

Billy Summers is, in my opinion, the best book Stephen King’s written in a great many years. It also stands out as being one of the best non-horror books of 2021, probably of the past few years at the very least. I’m not one of those to denigrate King just because he’s King; there’s a reason he’s perhaps the best-selling horror author of all time. He knows what he’s doing, even if I sometimes question his ability to stick the landing concerning his endings. Botched endings aside, most of his oeuvre is pretty well stellar, and even the material that hasn’t aged well is still worth diving into.
With Billy Summers, while there are passing references to supernatural forces within the world (commentary on The Overlook Hotel), King has made what I consider to be his most pronounced deviation from the realm of horror and the supernatural. Beneath the surface, this novel has a lot to say about the subjective nature of morality, the fluidity of identity and self-identity, the importance of memory, and the relationships we develop in our lives. None of that overshadows the surface-level compelling narrative of Billy and Alice.
Billy is an almost unnaturally skilled killer. While he’s an expert with firearms, he’s written with such humanity and depth that he never crosses the line into being a caricature of the action heroes from film and television. Highly literate, prone to in-depth analysis of both himself and those around him, and always planning, Billy has nevertheless immersed himself within a character he refers to as his “dumb self” when interacting with the criminals for whom he acts as a shooter. Providing his employers with a false sense of confidence derived from apparent superiority has allowed Billy to avoid being perceived as a threat, and it’s potentially kept him alive through the years.
When Billy accepts what he imagines to be one last job, he’s provided with a long-term identity that brings to the surface a dream he’d never expected to pursue. As time passes and Billy immerses himself deeper within the fictional identity, he begins noticing some disturbing signs that everything might not be as smooth as expected when the time comes to complete the job. Thankfully for Billy, he’s much smarter and more capable than the people who hired him.
As Murphy’s Law takes over and anything that can go wrong does go wrong, Billy finds himself in a complex paternal relationship with a damaged young woman. As they help one another heal, Billy learns that he’s still got one last job to complete, and it’s far more dangerous than the one he’d signed up for.
The pacing is superb, and the balance of character study with narrative as we find ourselves led by King to the conclusion of the tale is about as perfect as one could hope to experience.
Paul Sparks expertly tackles the audiobook narration, thoroughly capturing the different sides of Billy as he slips from identity to identity throughout the story. He additionally captures the secondary characters well enough that there’s never any doubt who we’re hearing in the dialogue. Sparks exhibits fantastic cadence as he guides us along the path King has carved for us to follow.

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