It’s a little difficult to know exactly what to say about Billy Summers. If you read some of the reviews (and Twitter rants) when the book came out, you might think that it was just a massive anti-Trump screed. It’s not — characters in the book do mention Trump in passing, and they usually do it in the ways you might think a King character would mention Trump depending on their general alignment on the “good” or “bad” side of things (good and bad are somewhat relative here) which I suppose is a statement in and of itself, but it’s also set in the present, basically, for the time when he was writing it, and I don’t know if you remember, but everyone was talking about Trump all the time at the time (our first Twitter president kind of made sure that you couldn’t just go about your day not thinking about the president) so it made sense to me that he would be mentioned. That’s realistic for the time period.
But it is something of an amalgamation of issues of the day. There’s some Trump, sure. The Me Too movement is definitely in there. There’s toxic masculinity. Racism and some immigration issues. There’s the issue of a rich amoral scumbag owning a bunch of news stations and using that to push a point of view… and finding out that someone that everyone would basically recognize as your average rich scumbag was actually way worse because, say, he’s also a pedophile and someone who hires a hitman on his own son. It’s also a “one last job” kind of novel, something the protagonist calls out specifically right at the beginning of the story. And on top of all that, it’s a story about writing. No one in the story is a writer — the eponymous Billy is a hitman (but one who only kills bad guys, so far as he knows) — but for slightly convoluted plot reasons, he’s in the position of writing his life’s story anyway. And another character — also not a writer (at least yet) — is in the position of finishing that story. So there’s a lot about discovering the power of writing for the first time, which may be interesting coming from a writer who’s been in the game for decades, but I bet he still feels that power and marvels at it. I can get a bit of it myself from writing a blog post or a boring web page, something I’ve been doing for a while and that is nowhere near as interesting as novels or life histories of hit men. So, I get that.
I feel like this wants to be a crime novel more than Later really wanted to be a crime novel. It’s not exactly what I would normally think a crime novel would be like — there are just too many other things — but that’s alright. However, Stephen King will be Stephen King, and we swerve a bit into, of all places, Sidewinder, Colorado, near the site of the Overlook. It’s not really important to the plot, and the connection is minimal, but it makes me wonder if he wants to go back there again — if maybe Billy Summers is some kind of jumping-off point for a future return to the Overlook. I don’t know why or who, and I certainly don’t know when… nothing from 2022 seems to fit the bill, and the future projects I’ve heard King mention in interviews have to do with Holly Gibney and also a return to Cujo (although I supposed Holly could go to the Overlook? That might be interesting. I’d probably be on board with Holly doing a road trip through all the King territories. That probably sounds silly, but a lot of King’s premises sound silly when you try to explain them or boil them down to a few words — see: a haunted car. Or maybe The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly meets Lord of the Rings meets King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, plus some other things. They don’t feel silly when you read them. That’s part of his power as a writer.)
King has always been concerned with wars and veterans, and Billy is a veteran himself. He was in a more modern warzone, but you can definitely see shades of King’s writing about Vietnam soldiers and vets in here.
Weirdly, there are also some Bachman vibes here — specifically Roadwork vibes. You may remember that Roadwork is not one of my favorites. But the Billy and Alice relationship is a better take on the Barton George Dawes picks up a hitchhiker relationship, for the most part. I don’t love the beginning of it. While we’re in a story full of the day’s hot topics, I understand why a rape, particularly of this sort, was part of the narrative. I do agree that we need to look at these things as a society and that fiction is one way of doing that. I can say that I just don’t want to look at it, don’t believe I’m the person who needs to look at it and just don’t like that part, and that would be true. But I’m also not convinced that Stephen King is the person to write stories like Alice’s. He’s a better choice than some, but I think he could have gone a different way without losing anything of value.
I also don’t love Billy’s revenge on Alice’s attackers. That’s probably my biggest complaint about the story. I get that revenge fantasies are a thing, and I get that some women in Alice’s shoes will have them. But they aren’t the only reaction, and in my experience, they aren’t the most common reaction. In my experience, one of the reasons why women don’t tell and don’t talk about it with their male friends and family members is because fathers and brothers and boyfriends, and random hitman friends tend to react like this. “Let me do something violent to them.” And many of us absolutely DO NOT WANT THAT. For one thing, we’ve already had all the violence we can stand. For another thing, we don’t want anything bad to happen to our male family members or friends as a result of this bad thing that happened to us (that we’re probably blaming ourselves for to start with.) For a third thing, we don’t want to view our male family members or friends as scary, violent people like the scary, violent people that hurt us — and it’s impossible not to make that connection when those friends and family members have a scary, violent reaction. This whole plot point reads very much like the male take on how to deal with men who rape women, and I just — I don’t want that. I don’t know anyone who wants that. I’m sure that somebody does, but I don’t think they’re as common as women who just wish they could tell their father/boyfriend/friendly neighborhood hitman what happened and have that person take care of them, not start planning on how they’re going to hurt the assailant. To Billy’s credit, and King’s, he does also take care of Alice. And since a major theme of the book is paying the price when you do something that’s really bad, I guess something had to happen to those guys if the rape had to be there in the first place. But it frustrates me.
That aside, though, I like Billy and Alice. I’m really, really glad they don’t end up sleeping together. King’s judgment here is better than Bachman’s in Roadwork. And I think the way it ended was both fitting and touching.