By Stephen King
The sole hint of supernatural activity in Stephen King’s new novel comes well over halfway through, when its protagonist, a hired killer and aspiring writer named Billy Summers, notices some weird goings-on in a painting of topiary animals. It doesn’t lead to anything: Shrugging off the pictorial shape-shifting, Billy turns the painting toward the wall of the cabin where he’s working on a memoir, and gets back to his blood-drenched memories of Falluja, where he served as a sniper in the Marines.
King’s fans will recognize the leafy animals from “The Shining,” and it turns out the cabin stands across the valley from the ruins of that novel’s infamous hotel, the Overlook, where, as the cabin’s owner tells Billy, “bad stuff happened.” It’s a nicely ironic piece of self-reference: Unlike that demon-haunted story about a writer-turned-killer, this tale of a killer-turned-writer is haunted only by books — King’s own, but a mass of others too. They aren’t necessarily the ones you would expect — no mention of Poe or Lovecraft or Shirley Jackson (acknowledged influences) — but at some level “Billy Summers” is clearly the work of a writer in retrospective mood: taking stock, paying his dues. Among the authors name-checked in its spacious narrative are Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Dickens, Faulkner, Tim O’Brien, Cormac McCarthy and Robert Stone, along with Billy’s own favorites, Thomas Hardy and Émile Zola. For much of the book, when he isn’t shooting people or writing about them, Billy is immersed in “Thérèse Raquin.”
His tastes may be highbrow (and staunchly realist), but the story he finds himself caught up in is very much — and very explicitly — a genre piece. Lured from the brink of retirement by a hit job offering a half-million-dollar advance, with another million and a half on delivery, Billy enters familiar, ill-omened territory: “If noir is a genre,” he reflects ruefully, “then ‘one last job’ is a subgenre.”
Fittingly enough, the plan concocted by the mob boss who hires him calls for Billy to pose as a writer. This is in order to blend into the small-town community to which his target is due to be extradited at some point, to face murder charges. If all goes well, Billy will get a shot at him on the courthouse steps a few blocks from the rented corner office in which he is to bide his time, pretending to be at work on a book. The device allows King to have fun with the unflattering mutual mirrorings of literary and criminal enterprises, each with its apparatus of talent, middlemen, contracts and deadlines, and each entailing its own kind of risk, as Billy discovers when he steps into character: “Any writer who goes public with his work is courting danger.”
By “public,” he means his employers, who have almost certainly cloned the laptop they’ve provided him with, and whom he increasingly suspects of plotting to kill him as soon as he has served his purpose. To outwit them he feigns cluelessness, doing his best to stay in the “dumb self” persona he has perfected over the years. He pretends to read only Archie comics, and opens his memoir in the voice of Faulkner’s “idiot” child from “The Sound and the Fury,” Benjy Compson, confident that the mobsters keeping tabs on him will read it as precisely the subliterate ramblings they’d expect from a chump like him.
A lot of writerly angst seems encoded in all this; lingering pique, perhaps, from ancient debates about the literary merits of King’s hugely popular fiction. (Harold Bloom dismissed his 2003 National Book Award medal for distinguished contribution to American letters as “idiocy.”) It certainly makes for an interestingly complicated subtext, which is soon matched by the text itself as Billy starts planning his own counterscheme for getting out alive (and getting paid) — an elaborate ploy involving serial identities, multiple disguises, secret addresses and a daunting quantity of phones and computers.
King layers it all in patiently, detailing the little worlds of the downtown office and the residential suburb where Billy whiles away his days and nights, using the memoir to reveal Billy’s grim back story (suffice it to say he embarked on his shooting career at an exceptionally tender age), and staging small lapses of judgment on Billy’s part that come dangerously close to exposing him (there’s a funny moment when he can’t resist hitting all the targets in a carnival shooting game). By the time his mark arrives the sense of what’s at stake in the shot Billy will finally take has been cranked up to the max, and the first of several lavish action scenes erupts with a satisfying release of pent-up tension.
That’s about a third of the way through. The remaining two-thirds feature Billy tracking down, first, the mobster who has indeed been trying to double-cross him and, next, the Mr. Big (or Mr. Even Bigger), a jowly right-wing media mogul based on you-know-who, who got the mobster to hire him in the first place. For these missions, and for company at the cabin where Billy holes up for a spell, King supplies his middle-aged hero with a 21-year-old love interest, Alice, arranging for her to be dumped (literally) on his doorstep from a van by three men who have just raped her.
Here, it has to be said, the book stumbles. Aside from the creaky coincidence, there’s something at once prudish and prurient about the ensuing relationship that’s hard to take. Post #MeToo, the conventional sexual dynamics of the pairing obviously wouldn’t work, and King tries hard to square them with those of our own moment, keeping things chaste while also keeping sex very much to the fore. The result is a weird sort of latter-day Hays Code effect, all separate bedrooms and nobly resisted temptation, offset by graphic anatomy shots and regular moments of accidental intimacy: “Her butt is socked into his basket.” Alice herself seems a throwback to an old idea of womanhood. She’s happy to let Billy avenge her rape rather than do it herself (the passage, featuring Billy in a Melania mask with a hand mixer, might have made for a vintage King scene in another era but feels dated now), and she adapts herself to Billy’s plans with a gratingly chipper obligingness — “‘Roger that,’ Alice replies, smart as you please” — uncomfortably reminiscent of the “cool girl” male fantasy skewered by Gillian Flynn in “Gone Girl.”
That these significant flaws don’t totally derail the book is a testament to its author’s undimmed energy and confidence. His eye for detail, especially at the dreckier end of roadside culture, is sharp enough to keep the long car rides that crisscross the novel lively and vivid, and he remains in possession of a seemingly effortless verbal flow that surges on over bumps and banalities in the story line (must the bad guy always turn out to be a pedophile?) without letting up. But next to classics of the One Last Job novel and its close variants — including my own favorite, George V. Higgins’s “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” — it seems driven more by formula, in the end, than the real reckoning with fate and mortality that the genre, at its best, affords.