Hit Man

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The ten stories in Hit Man each describe a single crime, or related set of crimes, committed by contract killer John Keller. Keller is a surprisingly sympathetic character, given his profession. Readers will commiserate with him in his midlife crisis—he feels no commitment to his job and wonders about how he fell into it, he travels around the country under temporary assumed identities, and he fantasizes about retiring to a quiet home life each time he visits a pleasant town on one of his contracts.

The stories, though many of them were published separately (in Playboy magazine) and can be read individually, come together as a chronicle of Keller’s life. Common threads run through them, including Keller’s fantasies of retirement, and bits of information accumulate to provide a fuller picture of Keller as a person. Along the way, he acquires a dog (from his psychiatrist, whom he kills) and a girlfriend (Andria, hired to walk the dog), then loses both. That is a large part of Keller’s life: Everything in it is temporary.

Because of his profession, Keller finds it difficult to form personal attachments. Andria guesses his job but stays with him anyway, at least for a while. Other than Andria, Keller’s only long-term associates seem to be Dot, the office manager (and possibly wife or girlfriend) of the “man in White Plains” who sets up his contracts, and the man in White Plains himself. Both are older; in fact, through the progression of stories, Keller and Dot find their boss to be increasingly forgetful and disorganized, leading to several near catastrophes for Keller.

Keller’s murders themselves receive very little attention in the stories. He admits that he has little specific training for the job and does not consider himself particularly talented. He solves the problems specific to each crime, but these are as often moral and ethical as logistical. The stories, in short, concern a man searching for meaning in his life—a life burdened with an unusual occupation.