Reading two works of fiction in a row – an unusual thing for me – has me thinking about reading and writing. My regular practice for reading is a predictable routine: non-fiction, non-fiction and then a bit of fiction. And occasionally a dash of “literature” as opposed to fiction to stretch myself. Non-fiction is my bread and butter. The regained ability to visit in-person bookstores and browse has upset the apple cart. I am enjoying the disruption.
Wells Tower’s collection of short stories, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned was a fiction treat. It had been on my “wouldn’t it be good to pick this up?” list for several years after reading a glowing review. Everything in this work of fiction aspiring for literature is good. It is polished, especially the rough bits. Tower’s prose is muscular and confident. He writes with expressive masculinity, direct with just enough distance. It’s engaging and interesting. The characters are memorable and there are lovely phrases sprinkled throughout. But as soon as I picked up my next book, it started to fade – and quickly.
Stephen King’s Billy Summers is a crime novel from the prolific horror author. King, impressively, continues to write and publish and write and publish – and do it consistently well. At first Billy Summers seemed like an exercise in a well-traveled theme, the last crime gone wrong crime genre. Hard-boiled and gritty might be the description that immediately comes to mind. In this novel, Summers is a hit man who only kills bad people. He is morally compromised but not without charm. He’s a very good protagonist. King, as usual, gives us a cast of well-drawn characters, somewhat familiar plotting and backstory – a decorated soldier sniper with terrible childhood trauma – and you think you know what’s going to happen. It is familiar terrain.
And then, halfway through the book, King shifts the direction with giving his protagonist a moral choice. It was unexpected, powerful, and it charged the novel with a new direction and energy. The latter sections of the book are outstanding. It’s storytelling at its best. I was pulled into the novel, cared for the characters, and wondered what King could do with a Reacher-like theme. King’s prose throughout is clean, crisp and carefully crafted. He doesn’t draw our attention to it, though, even though it’s worthy of consideration. What he is doing is writing to tell a story. I remember the plot and characters; they have remained vivid and I’m confident that they will do so for years. It has happened with other King writing, too.
In Billy Summers King gives his character multiple undercover identities. It is both plot device and an opportunity for King to enjoy himself writing with different voices. One of Summer’s identities is as a writer. King, through his narrator, and then through his narrator’s created fake identity, attempts to tell his “story.” It’s unreliable first-person narrator through unreliable first-person narrator, with commentary on what it is to write and why.
Does a book’s ability to remain with us signify quality? Often, but not necessarily so. Sometimes writing sticks with us because it is extreme; it shocks or disturbs. It can also remain with us if it is simple and recognizable. And there are also very well-written thoughtful works of literature that are complicated and profound. Some of these remain with us and others engage and we move on. I may not remember much of the book, but if it was assigned (and I’m thinking of all those papers in years ago college), parts will stay with me. I loved Ford Madox Ford’s The Good Soldier the first time I read it. Much of it has remained vivid, including that amazing first sentence. But I would be hard pressed to map the book’s plot. What did stick, both as a reader and as an object of study and reflection, is Ford’s use of an unreliable narrator to tell the story. I wonder if that is a literary device that works for me.
The contrast between King and Tower is about more than structure and style. It is about perceived intent, or perhaps how I understand what they are trying to do. Tower is a writer who is focused on his writing. He wants us to pay attention to his prose. King is a story teller who writes to tell stories. He wants us to engage in his stories and characters. Reading Tower and King led me to a realization after all these years: my preference, truth be told, is for stories. Some stories stand on their own. However, what makes for a truly memorable is a skillful story teller.