Craig Lancaster’s first novel, 600 Hours of Edward, is the engaging story of 600 hours (or 25 days) in the life of Edward Stanton, a 39-year-old resident of Billings, Montana. The title reflects a driving force in Edward’s personality and life: he likes to count. In fact, he counts and tracks many aspects of his humble existence in a tidy home in an unremarkable suburban neighborhood. He records his waking time each day, to the minute.
He keeps track of weather data, recording each day’s high and low temperatures. Edward also eats the same thing for breakfast (cornflakes) and dinner (spaghetti), every day. Every night at the same time, he watches a recorded episode of the old television series Dragnet. He grocery shops at the same store, on the same day, at the same time every week, and each week’s shopping list is virtually the same. He has dinner with his parents once a month.
He paints his garage once a year. This nearly-numbing level of structure serves an important purpose in Edward’s life. Edward is autistic and has obsessive-compulsive disorder, and his rituals and routines, along with daily medication and weekly visits to a therapist, help him survive in and navigate the world.
Edward’s illnesses have not always been under the best of control—he previously suffered through a series of embarrassing public incidents and medication adjustments—but with the help of his therapist, he has learned to manage his triggers, which mostly means avoiding the types of social situations that have led him to act out in the past. He does not work (he was fired from a previous job), and he uses the self-checkout lane at the supermarket (the result of an incident that got him banned from one of the chain’s locations). One of the therapeutic routines prescribed by his analyst is writing letters of complaint that he does not send. He writes a letter every night.
Sometimes they are addressed to people who offend him in the course of his day-to-day life, such as the unhelpful employee in the Home Depot paint department and the careless driver who clips his car in the parking lot. Other times, the letters target public figures for less personal slights: he writes to the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, his favorite football team, to complain about a poor showing by the team. Edward keeps the letters in a file that is as carefully organized as everything else in his life, and it’s clear that writing them is effective therapy for him.
When we meet Edward at the beginning of the novel, we see that his routines have paved the way to an existence that is trouble-free, yet isolating. He has no friends, and has a strained relationship with his father, a wealthy local politician who pays all of his son’s living expenses but keeps him at arm’s length, unable to come to terms with his illnesses. However, during the 600 hours the reader spends with him, Edward is shaken out of his routines by events, both happy and sad, that force him to re-examine his carefully-controlled life. He tries online dating.
He begins interacting with his new neighbors, a single mother and her 9-year-old son. Slowly, Edward starts to connect with other human beings. Not every interaction goes smoothly, but over the course of the 600 hours, we start to see a transformation in Edward. His relationship with the neighbor and her son shows signs of developing into a meaningful friendship. The nightly letters start to become more reflections than complaints. And all the while, Edward slowly, on his own terms, makes his way into a society that he has avoided for so long.
The author builds Edward’s character through spare, straightforward prose that keeps the story well-paced and readable, and adds just the right amount of emotion, so that by the end, it’s hard not to cheer for Edward and the remarkable 600-hour journey he has made.