Road Trip. The night before we begin a long drive, stretching five hours or more; my husband and I select a book. I listen to books all the time, when I’m sorting laundry, putting away dishes, filing papers, and my tastes are varied and far-ranging. I read to learn and to expose myself to alternate ways of seeing the world. As a writer, I consider it part of my job.
I challenge myself to steer away from the familiar in search of new authors. It’s easy to stick with the same author, once you find someone you like, and I admit I have a soft spot for Margaret Atwood and Elizabeth Strout. But that’s exactly what the publishing industry expects from most readers. It makes marketing easy for them. It’s one of the reasons writers trying to land their very first book contract, must claim their writing resembles the work of another more successful author. “Unique” is not a recommended word to use in a pitch to a literary agent. Although it is the unique and groundbreaking work of a yet undiscovered writer, that keeps the literary world fresh and vibrant.
My husband Peter listens to books also, usually when mowing the grass. He tends to favor formulaic authors like Michael Crichton and John Grisham. There is, however, one writer we can both agree on—Stephen King. Although King can be formulaic, he’s got enough of a far-ranging imagination, to always throw in something unexpected, and his plot-driven stories are fast paced and entertaining.
Just out in on Audible is King’s newly released Billy Summers. The short synopsis describes the plot as being about a killer for hire (a vet with a conscience) who is about to take on his very last job, before retiring, when just about everything goes wrong. I downloaded it, expecting a story similar in complexity to his 2014 novel Mr. Mercedes. Instead, I was surprised by the added layer of a memoir being written within the novel as well as additional characters and villains that enter midway through the plot.
I don’t think I’m giving away spoilers if I reveal that the cover story for the hitman Billy is going to be that he is a writer, with a literary agent (mobster) who sets him up in an office to complete his novel. Of course, only writers will know that such as premise is laughable, unless the hitman was a celebrity with a large following anxious to purchase anything with his byline. But that’s part of the inside joke, because Billy Sommers has somehow found the time to read and study literature extensively in between deployments to Iraq while also collecting comic books. In one of the early chapters, Summers is currently reading Emile Zola’s third novel Thérèse Raquin and thinking about the characters as he scans an Archie comic and poses as a simpleton for the benefit of his employers who might be threatened by his intellect.
The book Billy begins to write, his memoir, begins with an inciting incident (this one I won’t reveal) that sets him on a path towards his future employment as a hired assassin. Several references are made to The Hero’s Journey, a book by Joseph Campbell, that outlines the mythology template for storytelling. A favorite reference in writing programs, a “call to action” takes place and the hero or heroine sets out to accomplish a task, finding the holy grail or rescuing the princess in the castle. In the process of his/her adventure they are transformed. It’s the classic “Coming of Age” story. And within Billy Summers, is also imbedded a “Coming of Age” story, although Billy is a middle-aged man.
The trauma of a broken family and the trauma of war identify the protagonist as a wounded warrior. He’s seeking human connection. To become whole, the quest must commence. The healing process begins when Billy starts writing.
Billy’s life has been defined by a society that values entertainment and money above all else. It’s the good guys against the bad guys, but sometimes the lines get blurred. The storyline takes a few too many detours and at various times I found myself questioning the plausibility of a character’s action (not a good thing). But all in all, it was diverting entertainment, 16 hours and 57 minutes worth. It was a nine hour drive north last week and another nine hour drive back—so yes, Billy Summers by Stephen King was just about the perfect length!
If you have a book you’d like to recommend for shared listening while traveling, please do. Follow me on twitter at SN Maril. And read my latest published essay in the literary journal Invisible City here https://www.invisiblecitylit.com/nonfiction/the-land-holds-my-memory/