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600 Hours of Edward
By Craig Lancaster
As I've said here before, although I'm a big fan and champion of small-press, basement-press and self-published books, after reviewing hundreds of them now I've discovered that such designations are largely a self-regulating system, and that 95 percent of these titles were published under the circumstances they were because they really don't merit mainstream national attention. So it's always worth celebrating, then, when coming across a book from that five percent that legitimately do deserve a lot more acclaim than they're getting; and the latest of these is the remarkable 600 Hours of Edward by veteran journalist but first-time novelist Craig Lancaster, and put out by the tiny Montana-based Riverbend PUblishing, a book which could easily be an NYT bestseller right now if put out by HarperCollins and given a million-dollar marketing budget. And that's because Lancaster puts together here a nearly perfect combination of traditional literary elements, mixing crowd-pleasing sappiness with indie-friendly subversion, a masterful blend of character and action that takes advantage of traditional framing devices in just about the best way possible; and all this is even more astounding when you realize that the first draft of this book was the result of Lancaster participating in Nanowrimo, the popular literary challenge held every November where as many people as possible try to write an entire novel from start to finish over the course of exactly one month.
As the title indicates, the book is essentially a deep character study regarding 25 days in the life of one Edward Stanton, obsessive letter-writer and sufferer of Asperger Syndrome, the so-called "genius disease" that in the last ten years has gone from almost complete obscurity to nearly every nerd on the planet now claiming to be a victim of it, and which I'm convinced that future citizens will one day count as a major historical touchstone of the early 2000s, right up there with Facebook and Prozac. But as Lancaster deftly shows us, when legitimately manifested Asperger's can actually be quite the crippling condition, basically a combination of obsessive-compulsive disorder (or OCD) with a high-functioning version of autism, making its socially challenged victims essentially just a few steps away from being one of those sullen hospital patients who sit in the corner of a room for 16 hours a day muttering to themselves and rocking back and forth. I mean, certainly this is the state that we find the middle-aged Edward in as the novel opens, as Lancaster takes the time at the beginning to show his highly regulated, OCD-dominated life of rituals -- awake at exactly 7:37 every morning, grocery shopping every Thursday at 2 pm, where he buys the exact same list of goods each time, videotaped episodes of "Dragnet" at precisely 10:00 every night, but only the color episodes from 1967 to 1970, and which absolutely must be watched in the order they originally aired.
Like all good traditional three-act stories, then, the bulk of 600 Hours concerns what happens when a series of special events start disrupting this all-important routine more and more, and the various ways that Edward both successfully and unsuccessfully handles them -- like the arrival of a new neighbor, for example, a harried single mom whose rambunctious nine-year-old son starts hanging out around Edward's place more and more, and whose abusive ex eventually drags Edward into the middle of a court battle that almost puts him into an apoplectic state; or his rapidly deteriorating relationship with his aging father, an infamously curmudgeonly local politician and former oil-industry executive, who has always suspected half of Edward's mentally imbalanced behavior to be a deliberate put-on, and who has started resorting more and more to official missives from his lawyer whenever needing to communicate with him. And indeed, it's in these elements where Lancaster really shines, and is the main point of reading this novel, because of him quickly pushing past all the easy stereotypes of such characters to show us the much deeper, much more complex human beings who lie underneath. But then again, as mentioned, Lancaster also employs a series of traditional framing devices in order to hold the story together, well-known ones to be sure (for example, Edward's weekly visits to his psychiatrist, which occur four times in the book and serve as nice recaps to everything we've just learned), but that never wear out their welcome because of Lancaster always using them with a light touch (or, well, almost always using them with a light touch, which is why this book isn't receiving a perfect score today -- for example, Edward's obsessive recaps of that night's "Dragnet" episode at the end of each chapter wear thin by the end, and the whole mini-essay in the middle about the ten greatest Dallas Cowboy games in history was something the book could've done completely without).
And yes, as so far described, it'd be easy to dismiss 600 Hours as yet another afterschool special regarding an adorably quirky handicapped hero overcoming the odds and teaching all the people around him a little more about life; and indeed, arts history (especially the history of Oscar-bait Hollywood tearjerkers) is littered with such cutesy, pandering trash, and I'm usually as much of a hater of such crap as you are. (And seriously, Sean Penn, if you play even one more plucky but lovable mentally-challenged person, I may just possibly kill myself out of sheer disgust.) But what saves this book is that Lancaster takes the time and energy to show us the dark sides as well of dealing with someone who suffers from Asperger's, to show us the various ways that such a person will simply fail the people around them in certain situations, no matter how hard they try not to (and in fact, since a notorious trait of Asperger victims is an almost complete lack of social skills, such people many times fail to even understand why they should put in an effort in such situations in the first place); see as a fantastic example Edward's truly cringe-inducing attempt at internet dating, and the poor, poor woman who is subjected to an evening with him without realizing that he is in fact mentally imbalanced. But then again, Lancaster also manages to mine a lot of humor out of such situations too, which helps keep the darkness not too overwhelmingly dark; to stay with this example, see Edward's hilarious complaint letter to the CEO of dating site eHarmony, on how the happy smiling couples seen in their commercials could technically be considered a form of false advertising.
Ultimately I can give the book no higher compliment than this -- that it was one of only a handful of titles each year that made me cry in public while reading it (and by "cry," I mean literally weeping, big fat tears running down my cheeks at the coffeehouse like literally a little girl watching freakin' Bambi), an event I always take as a good sign, when a book can emotionally move a cynical bastard like me that much without making me disgusted at myself afterwards. For all you editors and agents who trawl the CCLaP website looking for obscure but proven winners ripe for turning into bigger hits, this is one of those winners, and there's no doubt in my mind that it will remain by the end of the year one of my top-ten favorite reads in the entirety of 2010. It's the very definition of an unknown book you should take a chance on, and I highly encourage you today to do just that.
Out of 10: 9.7