There sure are a lot of stories about “the best assassin in the world.” One wonders if there might be more stories than there are assassins, but since audiences seems to love paying for them and male action stars love the ego-boost of playing them, I doubt it will stop anytime soon. Since I personally find these stories irritating and a little distasteful I was a little disappointed to hear that Stephen King had dipped his toe in this well. Still, as a Constant Reader, or nearly anyway, I decided to suck it up and give his version a chance.
Billy Summers is a former Army sniper with a tragic backstory who makes a living putting bullets into heads from far away. He maintains that the people he shoots are bad people, but is smart enough to realize the hypocrisy inherent in that deflection. Forced to hang around in a mid-sized city in the American South while he waits for his new target to be extradited from California, Billy finds himself unexpectedly fitting in with his new neighbors. Despite knowing that he’s going to shatter their faith in humanity as soon as he pulls the trigger, Billy hosts barbecues, plays board games, and talks lawn care with the folks on his block.
His cover story is that he’s a writer trying to hunker down and finish a book, so Billy starts writing down his life story to pass the time. He starts with his tragic childhood as a victim of abuse by his mother’s girlfriend and his time spent in a foster home, eventually detailing his time serving in Iraq and the horrors he saw there.
The novel splits up in three acts. In the first, Billy waits for his target, in the second he deals with the fallout from pulling the trigger and makes an extremely unlikely new friend. In the third and final act, King indulges in some liberal wish-fulfillment which doesn’t really serve the story at all. (I have no objection at all to King’s political views, but the ham-handed way he incorporates them here derails the plot.)
Ultimately, the biggest problem with the novel is its title character. Beyond just the central hypocrisy of his good-guy hitman persona, King’s characterization of him is wildly inconsistent. He makes friends easily while waiting for his first target, but is a loner with no family or connections. He’s empathetic enough to rescue a young woman despite the risks it poses to his cover, but makes constant cracks about fat people and their appearance. And while it’s not impossible for someone who left an abusive foster home at 17 for the Army to grow up to be someone who reads Zola and Faulkner for fun, King never takes the first step to explaining how it happened to Billy.
King’s prose is fluid enough that this is a pleasant reading experience, but the generic similarity of Billy Summers to so many other hitman stories and the lack of compelling characters render this something of a disappointment.