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.

Part Twenty-One: How Did We Arrive Here?

Have I ever told you about the man who taught his asshole to talk?

Of course I haven’t, you’ll have to turn to William S. Burroughs for that particular anecdote. Naked Lunch was a terrific book and it was loosely adapted into a pretty damn interesting movie as well, if reading isn’t your thing…though that seems unlikely since we’re here right now. As far as teaching this particular asshole to talk, you’ll probably have to take your frustrations out on my mother since she was instrumental in nurturing my ability to communicate.

Personally, I love reading…and I am unhappy with myself that I don’t do as much of it these days as I would like. I have my mother to thank for fostering that love of the written word within me. She began teaching me how to read well before I ever got into school, using phonemes before Hooked On Phonics was even a thing. I don’t remember the lessons themselves, but the product of those lessons does indeed remain quite fresh in my memory.

My earliest recollection associated with reading is of my mother, father, and I in the car here in Rapid City when my father suggested that they take me to, “D-I-N-O-S-A-U…” when I blurted out that I wanted to go to Dinosaur Park before he had even finished spelling out the first word. Dinosaur Park, if you’re unfamiliar with the place, is a hilltop collection of concrete formed dinosaurs that would largely appeal only to children, especially little boys…this little boy was no exception to that.

My memory of that time is hazy, but I vaguely recall my father reacting negatively in response to me spoiling the surprise like I had…if that recollection is spot-on, I would not be at all surprised.

Don’t rush to interpret that the wrong way, it was not an indication of my father being opposed to my intellectual development, my father was an avid reader too. For all his faults, he had a decent collection of novels by Stephen King, Peter Straub, and others…including the novelizations of the original Star Wars films. It wasn’t my budding capacity to understand the English language that upset him, just my newly developed capacity to interfere with his intended surprise.

I grew up loving books though, regardless of any negative response to my being able to read at an early age. As a child I couldn’t get enough of them, which is something that remains quite true today as well. I remember insisting on attending the book fairs that were coordinated by my elementary school and eagerly wandering through the tables and counters piled high with new things to read. I always wanted more of them than I could reasonably expect to have.

During my younger years I collected and consumed Hardy Boys books, they were probably my favorites until I started reading classic literature and more contemporary adult fiction. The action and mystery of those books fascinated and intrigued me, the suspense was thrilling, and the fact that the brothers used their minds as much as their assorted skills to prevail over sometimes terrifying circumstances was something that made me feel like I wasn’t a total freak.

Through all of my childhood and adolescence my mother happily encouraged my enjoyment of reading as well as my desire to learn whatever I could about whatever there was available to me. She even took it in stride when her English and psychology textbooks disappeared into the wasteland that was my bedroom while she was still actively taking the classes that required them. She was studying to become an English teacher shortly after my age reached the double digits, and I was right there beside her…repeatedly stealing her course materials and reading through them for nothing more than the sheer pleasure of learning something new.

Not only did my mother heavily inspire my love of literature and learning, but she also directly led me towards my love of puzzles and other things that required critical thinking and analysis. I was putting together large puzzles on a card table in our basement at a very early age, sometimes with my mother or father’s assistance, other times by myself. I enjoyed watching the picture beginning to unfold from the disorganized and disparate components that looked like nothing at all until we put our minds to the task of organizing them and seeing the pattern before it had started taking shape.

It could be argued that my appreciation for artistry was spawned by my mother as well, though I have little to no artistic talent of my own. She was, at one point in the past, quite the artist. I remember digging out pencil sketches and the like that were highly impressive. Comparatively, I can doodle like a champ…but little more than that. My mother still seems to enjoy art of a sort, manufacturing by hand some truly impressive cards, invitations, and the like…also something that I am ill-equipped to replicate. Apparently artistic skill is not something I inherited from her.

I developed quite a love of music at an early age as well, and that one came mostly from my father, perhaps due more to my personal tastes than anything else. I grew up with access to an impressive collection of vinyl and as soon as I was old enough to operate his turntable I was regularly absorbed in listening to albums from artists like Alice Cooper, David Bowie, Quiet Riot, Dire Straits, Queen and others along those lines. I loved just laying back and letting the music carry me wherever it might.

The same way that my mother encouraged my love of literature, my father very much encouraged my love of music by buying me cassettes and then CDs as they became commercially available.

As far as my love of movies, that could probably be traced back to my father as well…not solely because of the countless video rentals that I enjoyed during the weekends I spent with him after the divorce, but also because he accumulated a pretty large collection of movies for himself. That is something of a ball that I took from him, and I damn well ran with it; owning somewhere in the vicinity of 1,500 DVDs, close to 500 or so blu-ray discs, and an unknown number of burned DVDs by this point in addition to my subscriptions to Netflix and the like. Escapism is probably my greatest weakness (certainly my greatest vice), enjoying, as I do, the chance to live wholly different lives from my own…regardless of the medium. I am proud to say however, that my library of books surpasses my collection of movies and television shows…displaying which medium remains my personal favorite.

My family life may have been pretty well fucked up by many standards, and I wholeheartedly concur with that conclusion…but even a broken timepiece is right twice a day, as the saying goes. In this case, my broken and disorganized family was proven to be right in quite a few ways, as far as I’m concerned.