I don’t like books written in first person, present tense. I don’t like stories told from the point of view of a mentally ill person. So I don’t know why I offered to review Craig Lancaster’s debut novel, Six-Hundred Hours of a Life.
I’m very glad I did, though, because 600 Hours is a very good book. It just goes to show that even a reviewer can work through a prejudice, and a good read can conquer a pre-conceived notion of what we like or dislike.
600 Hours is witty, heart-warming, and satisfying.
The main character, Edward Stanton, is mentally ill with obsessive-compulsive disorder and Asperger syndrome, but Lancaster makes him sympathetic and endearing without hiding the more problematic aspects of his behavior. He awakens at almost the same time nearly every day, and methodically notes the times in his notebook, which he calls recording his data.
The novel begins:
My eyes flash open. I wait a moment for the dull blur of morning light to come into focus and then I turn my head 90 degrees to the left and face the clock: It is 7:38 a.m. I have been awake at this time for the past three days, and for 18 out of the past 20. Because I go to bed promptly at midnight, I am accustomed to stirring at 7:38, but occasionally, I will awaken a little earlier or a little later. The range isn’t large – sometimes it’s 7:37, and sometimes it’s 7:40, and it has been 7:39 (22 times this year in fact), but 7:38 is the time I expect. It has happened 221 times so far this year, so if it were you, you would expect it, too. (You’re probably wondering how frequently I’ve been up at other times: 15 for 7:37 and 29 for 7:40.) Although I do my part by going to bed at midnight sharp, the variances occur because of things I can’t control, like the noise made by my neighbors or passing cars or sirens. These things frustrate me, but I cannot do anything about them.
I write down the time I woke up, and my data is complete.
Every morning Edward begins with the same ritual, and after a few mornings of this I began to admire how Lancaster handles it. It is supremely difficult to show a character’s repetitive actions without becoming repetitious. Someone years ago remarked about the movie Das Boot that the realistic portrayal of boredom on a submarine made the movie boring, too. (Others strongly disagreed, of course.) Lancaster portrays the repetition in Edward’s routine, using almost the same words, so that I found myself smiling. Smiling in sympathy, because Edward is a likable guy. And smiling at the unconscious (for Edward) humor of it. But not, I quickly add, laughing at Edward. He’s too likable to laugh at. Lancaster never does, and I didn’t either.
This novel is about the potential for human beings to change for the better. When we first meet Edward he is under the care of a good therapist, and already has made one positive change at her suggestion. Instead of mailing his complaint letters, he files them. We learn how many letters he has for several people who are the targets of his complaints, and each one has earned his or her own green folder. Here again, Lancaster’s writing soars over his subject matter, because instead of being put off by the complaint collection, I found it touching and sometimes funny. Also it gave me sympathy for Edward because he is largely incapable of communicating directly with other people except by extremes.
Have you ever met someone who refuses a candy bar not by saying, “Thank you, no. I don’t care for chocolate,” but instead says, “I hate chocolate.” Edward’s responses are more extreme.
He has written 178 complaint letters to his father, and that is simply sad. The greater sadness, however, is not that Edward can’t complain directly to his father; it’s that his father, wealthy, powerful and controlling, communicates with Edward only in writing, and not by writing the letters himself. The elder Stanton communicates with his son by means of letters written by his lawyer, in which he is referred to as Edward’s “benefactor.” For example, Edward receives a summons to a father-son talk:
Mr. Edward Stanton,
Your benefactor and I would like to talk with you about recent events and their possible bearing on your benefactor’s continued support of you. Please extend us the courtesy of meeting at 9 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 29, at the law offices of Lambert, Slaughter, and Lamb, 2600 First Avenue North, Suite 303.
We look forward to meeting with you.
Jay L. Lamb
This is not the way normal fathers and sons talk over what bothers them. In addition, Edward is 39 years old, much too old to be summoned for a lecture as if he were a child. As he tells people a couple of times, “I’m mentally ill. I’m not stupid.”
Edward chooses to try to let other people – men, women, and a child – into his life. And when human relationships become messy and difficult, he perseveres with the help of his therapist. Some things he simply can’t understand because they don’t fit the facts. And like Sgt. Joe Friday, the person Edward identifies with most, he prefers facts. (Edward is not delusional. He clearly understands that Sgt. Joe Friday is a character in “Dragnet,” the old TV series.) As the book progresses, however, Edward continues to struggle against the unpredictability and sometimes the cruelty of other people, and he learns to appreciate the good things he experiences with them. He learns to have fun. To laugh out loud.
Some of the other characters in the book also help him in his unexpressed quest to conquer his essential loneliness. In one scene, he needs breakfast and he has no food in the house, so he is forced to shop for groceries before breakfast instead of at his usual time when the store is more crowded and he can use the Self-Check Out lines. That way he won’t have to talk to anyone.
This morning, however, he is almost the only customer, so he goes through the “human” check-out. In so doing, he has a conversation with the clerk, his first in the more than eight years he has shopped there. For most people it would be a forgotten conversation as soon as they started their cars. For Edward it is momentous because the clerk has been pleasant and welcoming to him. And because of the clerk’s kindly attitude to this strange man, the reader remembers the clerk. Later, he comes back at his normal time and purposely goes through the human check-out line so he can have a small visit with the same clerk.
Edward becomes friends with Kyle, the little boy across the street, and with Kyle’s mother, Donna, as well. When he helps Donna at some risk of harm to himself, we see how courageous Edward is. So we add courage to the list of Edward’s good qualities.
This could not have been an easy book to write. On several levels, Lancaster succeeds. First, he writes sympathetically about a very difficult personality. Although there is a lot of humor in the book, Lancaster never goes over the edge to lead the reader to laugh at Edward. Second, Lancaster’s choices of details (the “data”) and the way he portrays small alterations in Edward’s attitude to those details show us Edward’s change over the course of the book. Third, a small step in his progress often leads to a larger challenge.
Besides the writing, another aspect of the book added to its excellence. 600 Hours is well edited and proofed. Not once did careless English usage or sloppy editing that left homonyms (grizzly-grisly), grammatical errors, or typographical errors cause me to stumble in the reading or jerk me out of the story.
If I have one quibble about this fine novel, it is that the pacing in one or two places could pick up. That, however, is not enough to prevent me from recommending 600 Hours highly. Good writing, a good story, sympathetic characters. Well worth your time and money.
If you react to it as I did, you’ll want to keep it on your bookshelf. It’s staying on mine.
Would I read Craig Lancaster’s second novel? You bet. I’m already looking forward to it.